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Forest harvest legacies control dissolved organic carbon export in small watersheds, western Oregon
- Lajtha, Kate, Jones, Julia
- Biogeochemistry 2018 v.140 no.3 pp. 299-315
- altitude, autumn, biological control, biomass, calcium, carbon sinks, clearcutting, coarse woody debris, dissolved organic carbon, ecosystems, forest litter, hydrograph, hysteresis, ions, old-growth forests, rain, runoff, silicon, snow, snowpack, solubilization, stream flow, streams, summer, watersheds, wood, Oregon
- This study examined physical and biological controls on dissolved organic carbon (DOC) fluxes from conifer-forest watersheds in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest of Oregon. We tested how DOC export was related to streamflow and legacies of wood on the forest floor three to five decades after harvest of old-growth forest in seven watersheds spanning the rain to snow elevation gradient. Three watersheds had old-growth forest and four had 30 to 50-year-old forest established after clearcutting of old-growth forest. Mean annual DOC flux in the watersheds was related to the biomass of forest floor wood, which was two or three times higher in watersheds with old-growth forest compared to young forest, and was inversely related to elevation, a measure of snowpack depth and duration. In contrast, fluxes of inorganic elements such as Si and Ca did not vary with harvest history or forest floor characteristics. Annual fluxes of DOC, Si, and Ca were linearly related to annual runoff, and annual volume-weighted concentrations of these ions declined by < 0.6% with several-fold increases in annual runoff. Across all years, DOC concentrations peaked before the peak of the hydrograph in all watersheds, which we interpret as representing movement, likely via preferential and surficial flow, of organic materials mineralized and solubilized during the long dry summers in this ecosystem. DOC concentrations relative to stream flow exhibited clockwise hysteresis loops in each water year, also suggesting that soluble DOC produced in the dry summer is exported in the fall. DOC concentration differences between reference and harvested watersheds also peaked in late summer or early fall, suggesting that the source of the additional DOC from reference watersheds came from coarse woody debris that remains moist during the dry summers and that was significantly greater in watersheds with elevated DOC. Taken together, our results suggest that forest floor wood is a previously unappreciated control on the supply of DOC that can be exported, and runoff is a secondary control on total DOC flux to streams. The legacy of forest harvest on DOC flux can be observed for decades, as total ecosystem carbon stocks, especially coarse woody debris, may require centuries to develop after old-growth forest harvest.