Modelling how vegetation cover affects climate change impacts on streamflow timing and magnitude in the snowmelt-dominated upper Tuolumne Basin, Sierra Nevada



We investigated, through hydrologic modelling, the impact of the extent and density of canopy cover on streamflow timing and on the magnitude of peak and late summer flows in the upper Tuolumne basin (2600–4000 m) of the Sierra Nevada, California, under current and warmer temperatures. We used the Distributed Hydrology Soil Vegetation Model for the hydrologic modelling of the basin, assuming four vegetation scenarios: current forest (partial cover, 80% density), all forest (uniform coverage, 80% density), all barren (no forest) and thinned forest (partial cover, 40% density) for a medium-high emissions scenario causing a 3.9 °C warming over a 100-year period (2001–2100). Significant advances in streamflow timing, quantified as the centre of mass (COM) of over 1 month were projected for all vegetation scenarios. However, the COM advances faster with increased forest coverage. For example, when forest covered the entire area, the COM occurred on average 12 days earlier compared with the current forest coverage, with the rate of advance higher by about 0.06 days year−1 over 100 years and with peak and late summer flows lower by about 20% and 27%, respectively. Examination of modelled changes in energy balance components at forested and barren sites as temperatures rise indicated that increases in net longwave radiation are higher in the forest case and have a higher contribution to melting earlier in the calendar year when shortwave radiation is a smaller fraction of the energy budget. These increases contributed to increased midwinter melt under the forest at temperatures above freezing, causing decreases in total accumulation and higher winter and early spring melt rates. These results highlight the importance of carefully considering the combined impacts of changing forest cover and climate on downstream water supply and mountain ecosystems. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.