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Modeled forest conversion influences humid tropical watershed hydrology more than projected climate change
  • Taylor Joyal,
  • Alexander Fremier,
  • Jan Boll
Taylor Joyal
Northern Arizona University - Flagstaff Mountain Campus

Corresponding Author:taylor.joyal@nau.edu

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Alexander Fremier
Washington State University
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Jan Boll
Washington State University
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In the humid tropics, forest conversion and climate change threaten the hydrological function and stationarity of watersheds, particularly in steep terrain. As climate change intensifies, shifting precipitation patterns and expanding agricultural and pastoral land use may effectively reduce the resilience of headwater catchments. Compounding this problem is the limited long-term monitoring in developing countries for planning in an uncertain future. In this paper, we asked which change, climate or land use, more greatly affects stream discharge in humid tropical mountain watersheds? To answer this question, we used the process-based, spatially distributed Soil Moisture Routing model. After first evaluating model performance (Ns = 0.73), we conducted a global sensitivity analysis to identify the model parameters that most strongly influence simulated watershed discharge. In particular, peak flows are most influenced by input model parameters that represent baseflow and shallow subsurface soil pathways while low flows are most sensitive to antecedent moisture, macropore hydraulic conductivity, soil depth and porosity parameters. We then simulated a range of land use and climate scenarios in three mountain watersheds of central Costa Rica. Our results show that deforestation influences streamflow more than altered precipitation and temperature patterns through changes in first-order hydrologic hillslope processes. However, forest conversion coupled with intensifying precipitation events amplifies hydrological extremes, reducing the hydrological resilience to predicted climate shifts in mountain watersheds of the humid tropics. This finding suggests that reforestation can help mitigate the effects of climate change on streamflow dynamics in the tropics including impacts to water availability, flood pulses, channel geomorphology and aquatic habitat associated with altered flow regimes.