Mountain Runoff Vulnerability to Increased Evapotranspiration with Vegetation Expansion at the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory

Friday, 19 December 2014: 2:25 PM
Michael Goulden, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA, United States and Roger C Bales, Univ California, Merced, CA, United States
Climate change has the potential to reduce surface water supply by expanding the activity, density, or coverage of upland vegetation, though the likelihood and severity of this effect are poorly known. We quantified the extent to which vegetation and evapotranspiration (ET) are presently cold limited in California's upper Kings River basin and used a space-for-time substitution to calculate the sensitivity of riverflow to vegetation expansion. We found that runoff is highly sensitive to vegetation migration; warming projected for 2100 could increase average basin-wide ET by 28% and decrease riverflow by 26%. Kings basin ET currently peaks at mid-elevation and declines at higher elevation, creating a cold-limited zone above 2400 m that is disproportionately important for runoff generation. Climate projections for 2085-2100 indicate as much as 4.1oC warming in California's Sierra Nevada, which would expand high rates of ET 700-m upslope if vegetation maintains its current correlation with temperature. Moreover, we observed that the relationship between basin-wide ET and temperature is similar across the entire western slope of California's Sierra Nevada, implying that the risk of increasing montane ET with warming is widespread.