The cause? Increased high-elevation plant growth fueled by climate warming
Freshwater runoff from the Sierra Nevada may decrease by as much as one-quarter by 2100 due to climate warming on the high slopes, according to scientists at UC Irvine and UC Merced.
Accelerated plant growth at higher elevations caused by increasing temperatures would trigger more water absorption and evaporation, accounting for the projected runoff declines, the researchers add.
A diminished river flow will only add to the burden of providing resources to the thirsty farms and homes that rely on it. The state is currently experiencing a severe drought, and some reservoirs and groundwater levels are at all-time lows.
The study findings appear this week in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Scientists have recognized for a while that something like this was possible, but no one had been able to quantify whether it could be a big effect," said UCI professor of Earth system science Michael L. Goulden of the decreased runoff. "It's clear that this could be a big effect of climate warming and that water managers need to recognize and plan for the possibility of increased water losses from forest evaporation."
According to the researchers, runoff from mountain ranges is vulnerable to temperature hikes that lengthen growing seasons and result in more vegetation growth at high elevations. Snow-dominated mountain forests that are currently dormant in winter with cold temperatures have lower vegetative density and less evapotranspiration than downslope forests in the snow-rain transition zone, which have year-round growing seasons. Evapotranspiration is the combination of water evaporation from land and the loss of water through plant-leaf transpiration.
Goulden and UC Merced's Roger C. Bales investigated the potential influence of a warming climate on evapotranspiration in the Kings River Basin in California's Sierra Nevada and found resulting changes in the amount of freshwater mountain runoff available to serve surrounding communities.
They gauged water vapor emission rates and combined those measurements with remote sensing imagery to determine relationships among elevation, climate and evapotranspiration. According to the data, freshwater mountain runoff is highly sensitive to expanded vegetation growth.
The authors found that greater vegetation density at higher elevations in the Kings basin with the 4.1 degrees Celsius warming projected by climate models for 2100 could boost basin evapotranspiration by as much as 28 percent, with a corresponding 26 percent decrease in river flow.
Further, the relationships among evapotranspiration, temperature and vegetation density were similar across a broader area of the Sierra Nevada, suggesting that the impact of climate change on evapotranspiration and freshwater availability could be widespread.
"Most people have heard about the giant forests around Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, but these areas have not been a focus of this type of research. Understanding of Sierran hydrology has improved recently with the National Science Foundation's Critical Zone Observatory, and data collected there allowed us to look at the problem from several perspectives," Goulden said. "All of our analyses pointed in the same direction: An upslope expansion of forest with warming would cause a large increase in evaporative water loss and lead to reduced water availability."
Bales is a professor of engineering and director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced. The research was supported by the NSF, through the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (EAR-0725097) and a major research instrumentation grant (EAR-0619947), and by the U.S. Department of Energy's Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program.
About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education and is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Currently under the leadership of interim Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world's safest and most economically vibrant communities, it's Orange County's second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.
Media access: UC Irvine maintains an online directory of faculty available as experts to the media at today.uci.edu/resources/experts.php. Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UC Irvine faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UC Irvine news, visit news.uci.edu. Additional resources for journalists may be found at communications.uci.edu/for-journalists.
Laura Rico | Eurek Alert!
Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s
26.11.2015 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Network analysis shows systemic risk in mineral markets
16.11.2015 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.
Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...
The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...
Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.
In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...
In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.
Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...
Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...
25.11.2015 | Event News
17.11.2015 | Event News
21.10.2015 | Event News
27.11.2015 | Press release
27.11.2015 | Life Sciences
27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences