Geologic, biogeomorphic, and hydrologic controls on floodplain organic carbon retention in mountainous headwater streams of the Colorado Front Range, USA

Friday, 19 December 2014: 11:50 AM
Nicholas A Sutfin and Ellen Wohl, Colorado State University, Geosciences, Fort Collins, CO, United States
Unaltered mountainous streams provide insight into natural processes and mechanisms of organic carbon (OC) retention in riparian ecosystems. Our prior work indicates that downed large wood and soil OC are the primary reservoirs for OC storage in mountainous headwaters streams of the Colorado Front Range. We surveyed downed large wood and floodplain soil along 24 study reaches in mountainous headwater streams in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Comparison of study reaches with various degrees of valley confinement in old growth (>200 yrs) and younger subalpine and montane forests reveals geologic and biogeomorphic controls for OC retention. Preliminary results indicate that unconfined valley segments store much more OC per area (783 Mg/ha) compared to partly confined and confined valley segments (153 Mg/ha). Unconfined valley segments store a significant amount of OC along single thread channels and facilitate potential for development of multithread channels. Multithread channels in old-growth forests, with trees large enough to create persistent channel-spanning logjams, store relatively little sediment and a disproportionately large amount of OC as large wood. Beaver dams also facilitate the development of multithread channels and high soil OC content in beaver meadows constitutes the largest OC pools among all channel types. Preliminary reach-average radiocarbon ages from charcoal in floodplain sediment of three study reaches with drainage areas <20 km2 (1438 ± 84 yBP), 20 – 100 km2 (539 ± 110 yBP), and >100 km2 (887 ± 84 yBP) indicate that floodplain sediment turnover time is much longer in small streams at higher, subalpine elevations. Snowmelt-dominated hydrographs in these high-elevation streams rarely exhibit bimodal characteristics typical of the hydrologic disturbance regime in lower elevation montane forests of the region, which are influenced by large convective thunderstorms and monsoons of the southwestern US. The downstream cumulative effect in larger basins at lower elevation appears to be faster turnover times for floodplain sediment and associated soil OC.