A paradigm shift in understanding and quantifying the effects of forest harvesting on floods in snow environments
Green, K.C., and Y. Alila, 2012: “A paradigm shift in understanding and quantifying the effects of forest harvesting on floods in snow environments.” Water Resources Research, v. 48, no. 10, doi: 10.1029/2012WR012449.
A well-established precept in forest hydrology is that any reduction of forest cover will always have a progressively smaller effect on floods with increasing return period. The underlying logic in snow environments is that during the largest snowmelt events the soils and vegetation canopy have little additional storage capacity and under these conditions much of the snowmelt will be converted to runoff regardless of the amount or type of vegetation cover. Here we show how this preconceived physical understanding, reinforced by the outcomes of numerous paired watershed studies, is indefensible because it is rationalized outside the flood frequency distribution framework. We conduct a meta-analysis of postharvest data at four catchments (3–37 km2) with moderate level of harvesting (33%–40%) to demonstrate how harvesting increases the magnitude and frequency of all floods on record (19–99 years) and how such effects can increase unchecked with increasing return period as a consequence of changes to both the mean (+11% to +35%) and standard deviation (−12% to +19%) of the flood frequency distribution. We illustrate how forest harvesting has substantially increased the frequency of the largest floods in all study sites regardless of record length and this also runs counter to the prevailing wisdom in hydrological science. The dominant process responsible for these newly emerging insights is the increase in net radiation associated with the conversion from longwave-dominated snowmelt beneath the canopy to shortwave-dominated snowmelt in harvested areas, further amplified or mitigated by basin characteristics such as aspect distribution, elevation range, slope gradient, amount of alpine area, canopy closure, and drainage density. Investigating first order environmental controls on flood frequency distributions, a standard research method in stochastic hydrology, represents a paradigm shift in the way harvesting effects are physically explained and quantified in forest hydrology literature.