Impact of Climate Change on Hydrochemical Processes at Two High-Elevation Forested Watersheds in the Southern Appalachians, United States
Climate change increasingly affects primary productivity and biogeochemical cycles in forest ecosystems at local and global scales. To predict change in vegetation, soil, and hydrologic processes, we applied an integrated biogeochemical model Photosynthesis-EvapoTranspration and BioGeoChemistry (PnET-BGC) to two high-elevation forested watersheds in the southern Appalachians in the US under representative (or radiative) concentration pathway (RCP)4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios. We investigated seasonal variability of the changes from current (1986–2015) to future climate scenarios (2071–2100) for important biogeochemical processes/states; identified change points for biogeochemical variables from 1931 to 2100 that indicate potential regime shifts; and compared the climate change impacts of a lower-elevation watershed (WS18) with a higher-elevation watershed (WS27) at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, North Carolina, United States. We find that gross primary productivity (GPP), net primary productivity (NPP), transpiration, nitrogen mineralization, and streamflow are projected to increase, while soil base saturation, and base cation concentration and ANC of streamwater are projected to decrease at the annual scale but with strong seasonal variability under a changing climate, showing the general trend of acidification of soil and streamwater despite an increase in primary productivity. The predicted changes show distinct contrasts between lower and higher elevations. Climate change is predicted to have larger impact on soil processes at the lower elevation watershed and on vegetation processes at the higher elevation watershed. We also detect five change points of the first principal component of 17 key biogeochemical variables simulated with PnET-BGC between 1931 and 2100, with the last change point projected to occur 20 years earlier under RCP8.5 (2059 at WS18 and WS27) than under RCP4.5 (2079 at WS18 and 2074 at WS27) at both watersheds. The change points occurred earlier at WS18 than at WS27 in the 1980s and 2010s but in the future are projected to occur earlier in WS27 (2074) than WS18 (2079) under RCP4.5, implying that changes in biogeochemical cycles in vegetation, soil, and streams may be accelerating at higher-elevation WS27.