Divergent phenological response to hydroclimate variability in forested mountain watersheds
Mountain watersheds are primary sources of freshwater, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services. There is significant interest in the effects of climate change and variability on these processes over short to long time scales. Much of the impact of hydroclimate variability in forest ecosystems is manifested in vegetation dynamics in space and time. In steep terrain, leaf phenology responds to topoclimate in complex ways, and can produce specific and measurable shifts in landscape forest patterns. The onset of spring is usually delayed at a specific rate with increasing elevation (often called Hopkins’ Law; Hopkins, 1918), reflecting the dominant controls of temperature on greenup timing. Contrary with greenup, leaf senescence shows inconsistent trends along elevation gradients. Here, we present mechanisms and an explanation for this variability and its significance for ecosystem patterns and services in response to climate. We use moderate-resolution imaging spectro-radiometer (MODIS) Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data to derive landscape-induced phenological patterns over topoclimate gradients in a humid temperate broadleaf forest in southern Appalachians. These phenological patterns are validated with different sets of field observations. Our data demonstrate that divergent behavior of leaf senescence with elevation is closely related to late growing season hydroclimate variability in temperature and water balance patterns. Specifically, a drier late growing season is associated with earlier leaf senescence at low elevation than at middle elevation. The effect of drought stress on vegetation senescence timing also leads to tighter coupling between growing season length and ecosystem water use estimated from observed precipitation and runoff generation. This study indicates increased late growing season drought may be leading to divergent ecosystem response between high and low elevation forests. Landscape-induced phenological patterns are easily observed over wide areas and may be used as a unique diagnostic for sources of ecosystem vulnerability and sensitivity to hydroclimate change.