Reassessing rainfall in the Luquillo Mountains, Puerto Rico: Local and global ecohydrological implications
Mountains receive a greater proportion of precipitation than other environments, and thus make a disproportionate contribution to the world’s water supply. The Luquillo Mountains receive the highest rainfall on the island of Puerto Rico and serve as a critical source of water to surrounding communities. The area’s role as a long-term research site has generated numerous hydrological, ecological, and geological investigations that have been included in regional and global overviews that compare tropical forests to other ecosystems. Most of the forest- and watershed-wide estimates of precipitation (and evapotranspiration, as inferred by a water balance) have assumed that precipitation increases consistently with elevation. However, in this new analysis of all known current and historical rain gages in the region, we find that similar to other mountainous islands in the trade wind latitudes, leeward (western) watersheds in the Luquillo Mountains receive lower mean annual precipitation than windward (eastern) watersheds. Previous studies in the Luquillo Mountains have therefore overestimated precipitation in leeward watersheds by up to 40%. The Icacos watershed, however, despite being located at elevations 200–400 m below the tallest peaks and to the lee of the first major orographic barrier, receives some of the highest precipitation. Such lee-side enhancement has been observed in other island mountains of similar height and width, and may be caused by several mechanisms. Thus, the long-reported discrepancy of unrealistically low rates of evapotranspiration in the Icacos watershed is likely caused by previous underestimation of precipitation, perhaps by as much as 20%. Rainfall/runoff ratios in several previous studies suggested either runoff excess or runoff deficiency in Luquillo watersheds, but this analysis suggests that in fact they are similar to other tropical watersheds. Because the Luquillo Mountains often serve as a wet tropical archetype in global assessments of basic ecohydrological processes, these revised estimates are relevant to regional and global assessments of runoff efficiency, hydrologic effects of reforestation, geomorphic processes, and climate change.