Fens as whole-ecosystem gauges of groundwater recharge under climate change

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Drexler, Judith Z., Knifong, Donna, Tuil, JayLee, Flint, Lorraine E., and Flint, Alan L.
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Currently, little is known about the impact of climate change on groundwater recharge in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Range of California or other mountainous regions of the world. The purpose of this study was to determine whether small alpine peatlands called fens can be used as whole-ecosystem gauges of groundwater recharge through time. Fens are sustained by groundwater discharge and are highly sensitive to changes in groundwater flow due to hydrologic disturbance including climate change. Seven fens in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Range were studied over a 50–80 year period using historic aerial photography. In each aerial photograph, fen areas were identified as open lawn and partially treed areas that exhibited (1) dark brownish-green coloring or various shades of gray and black in black and white imagery and (2) mottling of colors and clustering of vegetation, which signified a distinct moss canopy with overlying clumped sedge vegetation. In addition to the aerial photography study, a climate analysis for the study sites was carried out using both measured data (U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOwpack TELemetry system) and modeled data (a downscaled version of the Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model) for the period from 1951 to 2010. Over the study period, the five fens in the Sierra Nevada were found to be decreasing between 10% and 16% in delineated area. The climate analysis revealed significant increases through time in annual mean minimum temperature (Tmin) between 1951–1980 and 1981–2010. In addition, April 1 snow water equivalent and snowpack longevity also decreased between 1951–1980 and 1981–2010. For the fens in the Cascade Range, there were no discernible changes in delineated area. At these sites, increases in Tmin occurred only within the past 20–25 years and decreases in snowpack longevity were more subtle. A conceptual model is presented, which illustrates that basic differences in hydrogeology of the Sierra Nevada vs. the Cascade Range may control the threshold at which changes in delineated fen areas are discernible. Overall, the results from this study show that fens in the Sierra Nevada have strong potential as whole-ecosystem gauges for determining long-term changes in groundwater recharge under climate change. Due to either more moderate climate change and/or hydrogeological differences, fens in the southern Cascade Range currently do not appear to have the same utility. A greater sample size of fens in the Sierra Nevada is needed to confirm the general applicability of this method. In addition, future work needs to focus on integrating fen monitoring with geochemical and/or isotopic process-level studies in order to quantify changes in groundwater recharge identified using this new approach.


Drexler, J. Z., D. Knifong, J. Tuil, L. E. Flint, and A. L. Flint. 2013. Fens as whole-ecosystem gauges of groundwater recharge under climate change. Journal of Hydrology 481:22–34.