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  1. Modern forest management generally relies on thinning treatments to reduce fuels and mitigate the threat of catastrophic wildfire. They have also been proposed as a tool to augment downstream flows by reducing evapotranspiration. Warming climates are causing many forests to transition from snow-dominated to rain-dominated precipitation regimes—in which water stores are depleted earlier in the summer. However, there are relatively few studies of these systems that directly measure the hydrologic impacts of such treatments during and following snow-free winters. This work compares the below-canopy meteorological and subsurface hydrologic differences between two thinning prescriptions and an unaltered Control during periods of extreme drought and near-record precipitation (with little snow). The field site was within a coniferous forest in the rain-snow transition zone of the southern Cascades, near the Sierra Nevada Range of California. Both thinning-prescriptions had a modest and predictable impact on below-canopy meteorology, which included their causing lower nighttime minimum temperatures in the critical summer months and higher wind speeds. Relative to the Control, both treatments affected soil moisture storage by delaying its annual decline and increasing its minimum value by the end of the season. The onset of soil moisture depletion was strongly tied to the magnitude of winter precipitation. In dry years, it began much earlier within the dense Control stand than in the treated ones, and, without snow, soil moisture was not replenished in the late spring. During high precipitation years, the storage capacity was topped off for all three stands, which resulted in similar timing of moisture decline across them, later in the season. The two thinning prescriptions increased stores through the height of summer (in wet and drought years). Finally, the basal area increment (BAI) of the remaining trees rose in both, suggesting they used the excess moisture to support rapid growth. 
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  2. Abstract. Mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks in the western United States result inwidespread tree mortality, transforming forest structure within watersheds.While there is evidence that these changes can alter the timing and quantity of streamflow, there is substantial variation in both the magnitude and direction of hydrologic responses, and the climatic and environmental mechanisms driving this variation are not well understood. Herein, we coupled an eco-hydrologic model (RHESSys) with a beetle effects model and applied it to a semiarid watershed, Trail Creek, in the Bigwood River basin in central Idaho, USA, to examine how varying degrees of beetle-caused tree mortality influence water yield. Simulation results show that water yield during the first 15 years after beetle outbreak is controlled by interactions between interannual climate variability, the extent of vegetation mortality, and long-term aridity. During wet years, water yield after a beetle outbreak increased with greater tree mortality; this was driven by mortality-caused decreases in evapotranspiration. During dry years, water yield decreased at low-to-medium mortality but increased at high mortality. The mortality threshold for the direction of change was location specific. The change in water yield also varied spatially along aridity gradients during dry years. In wetter areas of the Trail Creek basin, post-outbreak water yield decreased at low mortality (driven by an increase in ground evaporation) and increased when vegetation mortality was greater than 40 % (driven by a decrease in canopy evaporation and transpiration). In contrast, in more water-limited areas, water yield typically decreased after beetle outbreaks, regardless of mortality level (although the driving mechanisms varied). Our findings highlight the complexity and variability of hydrologic responses and suggest that long-term (i.e., multi-decadal mean) aridity can be a useful indicator for the direction of water yield changes after a disturbance. 
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  3. Abstract

    Extreme wildfires are increasing in frequency globally, prompting new efforts to mitigate risk. The ecological appropriateness of risk mitigation strategies, however, depends on what factors are driving these increases. While regional syntheses attribute increases in fire activity to both climate change and fuel accumulation through fire exclusion, they have not disaggregated causal drivers at scales where land management is implemented. Recent advances in fire regime modeling can help us understand which drivers dominate at management-relevant scales. We conducted fire regime simulations using historical climate and fire exclusion scenarios across two watersheds in the Inland Northwestern U.S., which occur at different positions along an aridity continuum. In one watershed, climate change was the key driver increasing burn probability and the frequency of large fires; in the other, fire exclusion dominated in some locations. We also demonstrate that some areas become more fuel-limited as fire-season aridity increases due to climate change. Thus, even within watersheds, fuel management must be spatially and temporally explicit to optimize effectiveness. To guide management, we show that spatial estimates of soil aridity (or temporally averaged soil moisture) can provide a relatively simple, first-order indicator of where in a watershed fire regime is climate vs. fuel-limited and where fire regimes are most vulnerable to change.

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  4. Abstract

    Earth system models synthesize the science of interactions amongst multiple biophysical and, increasingly, human processes across a wide range of scales. Ecohydrologic models are a subset of earth system models that focus particularly on the complex interactions between ecosystem processes and the storage and flux of water. Ecohydrologic models often focus at scales where direct observations occur: plots, hillslopes, streams, and watersheds, as well as where land and resource management decisions are implemented. These models complement field‐based and data‐driven science by combining theory, empirical relationships derived from observation and new data to create virtual laboratories. Ecohydrologic models are tools that managers can use to ask “what if” questions and domain scientists can use to explore the implications of new theory or measurements. Recent decades have seen substantial advances in ecohydrologic models, building on both new domain science and advances in software engineering and data availability. The increasing sophistication of ecohydrologic models however, presents a barrier to their widespread use and credibility. Their complexity, often encoding 100s of relationships, means that they are effectively “black boxes,” at least for most users, sometimes even to the teams of researchers that contribute to their design. This opacity complicates the interpretation of model results. For models to effectively advance our understanding of how plants and water interact, we must improve how we visualize not only model outputs, but also the underlying theories that are encoded within the models. In this paper, we outline a framework for increasing the usefulness of ecohydrologic models through better visualization. We outline four complementary approaches, ranging from simple best practices that leverage existing technologies, to ideas that would engage novel software engineering and cutting edge human–computer interface design. Our goal is to open the ecohydrologic model black box in ways that will engage multiple audiences, from novices to model developers, and support learning, new discovery, and environmental problem solving.

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  5. Abstract

    Understanding the severity and extent of near surface critical zone (CZ) disturbances and their ecosystem response is a pressing concern in the face of increasing human and natural disturbances. Predicting disturbance severity and recovery in a changing climate requires comprehensive understanding of ecosystem feedbacks among vegetation and the surrounding environment, including climate, hydrology, geomorphology, and biogeochemistry. Field surveys and satellite remote sensing have limited ability to effectively capture the spatial and temporal variability of disturbance and CZ properties. Technological advances in remote sensing using new sensors and new platforms have improved observations of changes in vegetation canopy structure and productivity; however, integrating measures of forest disturbance from various sensing platforms is complex. By connecting the potential for remote sensing technologies to observe different CZ disturbance vectors, we show that lower severity disturbance and slower vegetation recovery are more difficult to quantify. Case studies in montane forests from the western United States highlight new opportunities, including evaluating post‐disturbance forest recovery at multiple scales, shedding light on understory vegetation regrowth, detecting specific physiological responses, and refining ecohydrological modeling. Learning from regional CZ disturbance case studies, we propose future directions to synthesize fragmented findings with (a) new data analysis using new or existing sensors, (b) data fusion across multiple sensors and platforms, (c) increasing the value of ground‐based observations, (d) disturbance modeling, and (e) synthesis to improve understanding of disturbance.

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  6. Abstract

    Although natural disturbances such as wildfire, extreme weather events, and insect outbreaks play a key role in structuring ecosystems and watersheds worldwide, climate change has intensified many disturbance regimes, which can have compounding negative effects on ecosystem processes and services. Recent studies have highlighted the need to understand whether wildfire increases or decreases after large‐scale beetle outbreaks. However, observational studies have produced mixed results. To address this, we applied a coupled ecohydrologic‐fire regime‐beetle effects model (RHESSys‐WMFire‐Beetle) in a semiarid watershed in the western US. We found that in the red phase (0–5 years post‐outbreak), surface fire extent, burn probability, and surface and crown fire severity all decreased. In the gray phase (6–15 years post‐outbreak), both surface fire extent and surface and crown fire severity increased with increasing mortality. However, fire probability reached a plateau during high mortality levels (>50% in terms of carbon removed). In the old phase (one to several decades post‐outbreak), fire extent and severity still increased in all mortality levels. However, fire probability increased during low to medium mortality (≤50%) but decreased during high mortality levels (>50%). Wildfire responses also depended on the fire regime. In fuel‐limited locations, fire probability increased with increasing fuel loads, whereas in fuel‐abundant (flammability‐limited) systems, fire probability decreased due to decreases in fuel aridity from reduced plant water demand. This modeling framework can improve our understanding of the mechanisms driving wildfire responses and aid managers in predicting when and where fire hazards will increase.

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  7. Abstract

    Climate and wildfire are closely linked. Climate regulates wildfire directly over short timescales through its effect on fuel aridity and indirectly over long timescales through vegetation productivity and the structure and abundance of fuels. Prediction of future wildfire regimes in a changing climate often uses empirical studies that presume current relationships between short‐term climate variables and wildfire activity will be stationary in the future. This is problematic because landscape‐scale wildfire dynamics exhibit non‐stationarity, with both positive and negative feedback loops that operate at different temporal and spatial scales. This requires that such feedbacks are accommodated in a model framework from which wildfire dynamics are emergent rather than pre‐specified. We use a new model, RHESSys‐WMFire, that integrates ecohydrology with fire spread and effects to simulate a 60‐yr time series of vegetation, fuel development, and wildfire in a 6572‐ha watershed in the Southern Sierra Nevada, USA, with a factorial design of increased temperature and severe drought. All climate scenarios had an initial pulse of elevated area burned associated with high temperature, low precipitation, and high fine fuel loading. There were positive correlations between annual area burned and mean annual maximum temperature and negative correlations with annual precipitation, consistent with understood direct effects of climate on wildfire in this system. Decreased vegetation productivity and increased fine fuel decomposition were predicted with increased temperature, resulting in long‐term reduced fine fuels and area burned relative to baseline. Repeated extreme drought increased area burned relative to baseline and over the long‐term had substantially reduced overstory biomass. Overstory biomass was resilient to repeat wildfire under baseline climate. The model system predicts that the short‐term direct effects of climate on wildfire can differ from long‐term indirect effects such that the simple maxim hotter/drier equals more wildfire can be both true and false, depending on scale.

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