Publication Date: 
December 2012
Viers, JH, R Peek, SE Purdy, JD Emmons, SM Yarnell. Hydroclimatic alteration increases vulnerability of montane meadows in the Sierra Nevada, California. EOS TRANS. AGU, 92(53): GC11B-0986

Meadow ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada (California, USA) have been maintained by the interplay of biotic and abiotic forces, where hydrological functions bridge aquatic and terrestrial realms. Meadows are not only key habitat for fishes, amphibians, birds, and mammals alike, but also provide enumerable ecosystem services to humans, not limited to regulating services (eg, water filtration), provisioning services (eg, grazing), and aesthetics. Using hydroclimatic models and spatial distribution models of indicator species, a range wide assessment was conducted to assess and synthesize the vulnerability of meadow ecosystems to hydroclimatic alteration, a result of regional climate change. Atmospheric warming is expected to result in a greater fraction of total precipitation falling as winter rain (rather than snow) and earlier snowmelt. These predicted changes will likely cause more precipitation-driven runoff in winter and reduced snowmelt runoff in spring, leading to reduced annual runoff and a general shift in runoff timing to earlier in the year. These profound effects have consequences for hydrological cycling and meadow functioning, though such changes will not occur steadily through time or uniformly across the range, and each individual meadow will respond as a function of its composition and land use history. Most vulnerable is groundwater recharge, a fundamental component of meadow hydrology. As a result of shortened snow melt period and absence of diel snowmelt fluxes that would otherwise gradually refill meadow aquifers, recharge is expected to decline due to less infiltration. Diminished water tables will likely stress hydric and mesic vegetation, promoting more xeric conditions. Coupled with greater magnitude stream flows, these conditions promote channel incision and ultimate state shift to non-meadow conditions. The biological effects of hydroclimatic alteration, such as lower mean annual flow and earlier timing, will result in an overall decrease in available habitat for aquatic species, particularly for cold water fishes (ie, salmonids and sculpins). Earlier timing and longer low flow duration will force aquatic biota to withstand more days at thermally challenging temperatures, potentially promoting non-native species. Decreased mean annual flow, less overall snow volume, and warmer daily air temperatures will potentially decrease the number of days of standing water available for amphibian reproduction. A core strategy for maintaining meadow ecosystems, ecosystem services, and dependent biodiversity is to reduce vulnerabilities, such as unstable stream banks that promote cycles of incision, and increase resilience to disturbance, such as actively removing encroaching vegetation that can overtap water tables and build up wildfire fuels. Reducing meadow vulnerability to hydroclimatic alteration and ensuring sustained ecosystem services will require active ecosystem management (ie, managed for indicator species, but with focus on hydrological functioning); coordinated hydrological management (ie, conservation action and removal of stressors coordinated across all ownerships and management regimes); and effective communication to minimize human activities that reduce resilience, as well as improve human