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Uncertainty in carbon allocation strategy and ecophysiological parameterization influences on carbon and streamflow estimates for two western US forested watersheds

Garcia, Elizabeth S., Tague, Christina L., Choate, Janet S.
Ecological modelling 2016 v.342 pp. 19-33
carbon, carbon sequestration, carbon sinks, case studies, ecophysiology, ecosystems, forests, leaves, models, mortality, mountains, nutrient requirements, parameter uncertainty, roots, stems, stemwood, stream flow, watersheds, California, Oregon
Increasingly sophisticated process-based ecosystem models account for the ability of plants to vary the proportion of net photosynthate that is allocated to individual organs – such as leaves, stems and roots. Because the governing mechanisms are still not well understood, models differ in the strategies used to represent carbon allocation processes. Allocation schemes may have important implications for ecosystem structure and biogeochemical cycling, thus there is a need to better understand how different carbon allocation strategies influence estimates of variables that are of interest to model users. At the same time, uncertainty in other ecophysiological parameters that are commonly used in carbon cycling models may influence these estimates and interact with different carbon allocation strategies. We use a coupled ecohydrologic model to understand how uncertainty in three relatively simple allocation strategies affects carbon (C) and streamflow estimates in two case study forested mountain watersheds in the western United States: a relatively wet site located in the western Oregon Cascades, and a drier site in California’s Sierra Nevada. Ecophysiological parameters controlling productivity rates, morphology, and nutrient requirements for growth are varied as well. The influence of specific ecophysiological parameters and allocation strategies on C sequestration and streamflow estimates differed between sites. At the wetter site, uncertainty in C cycling processes resulted in a three-fold difference in potential sequestered carbon, but had a negligible effect on annual and low monthly streamflow estimates. Conversely, at the drier site, C pool estimates showed limited sensitivity to ecophysiological parameter uncertainty, but considerable difference in annual and low monthly streamflow estimates across ecophysiological assumptions. At both sites, stemwood C pool estimates exceeded literature-derived field values when branch mortality—a surrogate for density thinning—was not included in addition to background mortality. Despite using site- and species-specific information, we are unable to invalidate any of the allocation strategies considered. Our results suggest that uncertainty in parameterization of ecophysiological parameters and assumptions about carbon allocation can strongly influence model estimates of both streamflow and forest carbon sequestration potential, but that influence is likely to vary with site bioclimatic characteristics.