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Influence of declining mean annual rainfall on the behavior and yield of sediment and particulate organic carbon from tropical watersheds

Strauch, Ayron M., MacKenzie, Richard A., Giardina, Christian P., Bruland, Gregory L.
Geomorphology 2018 v.306 pp. 28-39
base flow, biomass, data collection, habitats, hysteresis, land use, models, particulate organic carbon, rain, runoff, sediment transport, sediment yield, sediments, soil, soil erosion, soil organic matter, storms, suspended sediment, tropics, vegetation cover, watersheds
The capacity to forecast climate and land-use driven changes to runoff, soil erosion and sediment transport in the tropics is hindered by a lack of long-term data sets and model study systems. To address these issues we utilized three watersheds characterized by similar shape, geology, soils, vegetation cover, and land use arranged across a 900mm gradient in mean annual rainfall (MAR). Using this space-for-time design, we quantified suspended sediment (SS) and particulate organic carbon (POC) export over 18months to examine how large-scale climate trends (MAR) affect sediment supply and delivery patterns (hysteresis) in tropical watersheds. Average daily SS yield ranged from 0.128 to 0.618tkm⁻² while average daily POC ranged from 0.002 to 0.018tkm⁻². For the largest storm events, we found that sediment delivery exhibited similar clockwise hysteresis patterns among the watersheds, with no significant differences in the similarity function between watershed pairs, indicating that: (1) in-stream and near-stream sediment sources drive sediment flux; and (2) the shape and timing of hysteresis is not affected by MAR. With declining MAR, the ratio of runoff to baseflow and inter-storm length between pulse events both increased. Despite increases in daily rainfall and the number of days with large rainfall events increasing with MAR, there was a decline in daily SS yield possibly due to the exhaustion of sediment supply by frequent runoff events in high MAR watersheds. By contrast, mean daily POC yield increased with increasing MAR, possibly as a result of increased soil organic matter decomposition, greater biomass, or increased carbon availability in higher MAR watersheds. We compared results to modeled values using the Load Estimator (LOADEST) FORTRAN model, confirming the negative relationship between MAR and sediment yield. However, because of its dependency on mean daily flow, LOADEST tended to under predict sediment yield, a result of its poor ability to capture the high variability in tropical streamflow. Taken together, results indicate that declines in MAR can have contrasting effects on hydrological processes in tropical watersheds, with consequences for instream ecology, downstream water users, and nearshore habitat.