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Will Riparian Refugia be Destabilized by Snow Drought?
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  • Louis Graup,
  • Christina (Naomi) Tague,
  • Adrian Harpold,
  • Sebastian Krogh
Louis Graup
University of California Santa Barbara

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Christina (Naomi) Tague
University of California Santa Barbara
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Adrian Harpold
University of Nevada Reno
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Sebastian Krogh
University of Nevada, Reno
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The entire western US is in the midst of a megadrought. Combined with high temperatures, increasingly severe droughts are causing widespread forest mortality. In the Sierra Nevada, CA in particular, the Mediterranean climate exposes montane forests to water stress due to the summer drought. Normally, the slow melting of the winter snowpack helps to alleviate summer water stress, especially in riparian ecosystems that benefit from subsurface lateral inputs along a hillslope. However, the loss of the snowpack due to snow drought could potentially eliminate these buffering effects. This research aims to address the role of subsurface lateral redistribution in mediating vegetation responses to drought along a hillslope. We apply a spatially-distributed ecohydrologic model (RHESSys) to an experimental hillslope in a snow-dominated watershed in the Sierra Nevada, CA. We incorporate observed sap flow data from the experimental hillslope to estimate the relative differences in onset of water stress for upslope and riparian sites, which is used to constrain RHESSys drainage parameter uncertainty. Then, we run hypothetical multi-year drought experiments to investigate how climate variability translates to water stress on a hillslope. Our results challenge the common assumption that riparian forests are buffered against drought stress by subsurface lateral inputs. For all drought types, both upslope and riparian sites experience severe losses of net primary productivity (NPP), and on average upslope sites are more adversely affected (upslope loss of NPP = 50% vs. riparian = 35%). But even in a wet year, as temperatures rise and the snowpack disappears (i.e., warm snow drought), vegetation approaches a threshold response that destabilizes the riparian buffering effect. Our results show that for 12% of all scenarios, riparian NPP decreases more than upslope NPP, as a consequence of earlier snowmelt. Interactions between climate variability and ecophysiological uncertainty produce scenarios that exhibit the riparian threshold response. By recognizing the conditions that determine riparian sensitivity to drought, management actions can be proactive in preserving this important hydrological refugia.