Hydrological consequences of declining land use and elevated CO2 in alpine grassland


Correspondence author. E-mail: nicole.inauen@bluewin.ch


  1. Large areas of alpine pastures and meadows currently face declining land use or abandonment, which leads to tall-grass transition ecosystems with higher leaf area index (LAI), potentially increased evapotranspiration (ET) and thus, reduced water yield. Elevated atmospheric CO2, on the other hand, is known to reduce stomata opening and hence, leaf-level transpiration, which may translate into higher soil moisture and enhanced total runoff. Here, we quantify these opposing effects of global change on the water balance of alpine grassland in a field experiment in the Swiss Alps (2440 m a.s.l.).
  2. Rates of ET and deep seepage (percolation water) of four alpine grassland types (dominated by Agrostis, Nardus, Carex or forbs) were measured using intact monoliths in 51 weighing lysimeters. A part of the monoliths was clipped to simulate sheep grazing during three seasons (2008–2010). Another set was exposed to elevated CO2 (580 ppm) using free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) during the 2009 growing season.
  3. Simulated grazing reduced bright day ET by on average −12% across all years, with the most pronounced effects in the high-stature swards. Correspondingly, the higher biomass and LAI in unclipped grassland lowered the seasonal sum of deep seepage by −13% in a drier summer (2009) and by −5% in a rather wet summer (2010) compared to clipped swards.
  4. CO2 enrichment reduced ET in all grassland types by −3 to −7%, increased δ18O in foliage and enhanced soil moisture, but not deep seepage. Hence, future CO2 slightly counteracts the land use effects at canopy level, however, not in terms of water yield.
  5. Synthesis. Our results indicate that both grazing and elevated CO2 are mitigating the effects of dry spells on alpine vegetation. The net effect of the continuous decline in the land use and of elevated CO2 is negative for catchment water yield and thus, for potential hydroelectric power production. Although these economic ‘costs’ are rather moderate per hectare of alpine grassland, sums are substantial when scaled to the vast areas potentially affected in the Alps. These calculated ‘costs’ attribute economic value to the eco-hydrological benefits of land care at these high elevations.