, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 391-403

Assessing topographic patterns in moisture use and stress using a water balance approach

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Abstract

Through its control on soil moisture patterns, topography’s role in influencing forest composition is widely recognized. This study addresses shortcomings in traditional moisture indices by employing a water balance approach, incorporating topographic and edaphic variability to assess fine-scale moisture demand and moisture availability. Using GIS and readily available data, evapotranspiration and moisture stress are modeled at a fine spatial scale at two study areas in the US (Ohio and North Carolina). Model results are compared to field-based soil moisture measurements throughout the growing season. A strong topographic pattern of moisture utilization and demand is uncovered, with highest rates of evapotranspiration found on south-facing slopes, followed by ridges, valleys, and north-facing slopes. South-facing slopes and ridges also experience highest moisture deficit. Overall higher rates of evapotranspiration are observed at the Ohio site, though deficit is slightly lower. Based on a comparison between modeled and measured soil moisture, utilization and recharge trends were captured well in terms of both magnitude and timing. Topographically controlled drainage patterns appear to have little influence on soil moisture patterns during the growing season. In addition to its ability to accurately capture patterns of soil moisture in both high-relief and moderate-relief environments, a water balance approach offers numerous advantages over traditional moisture indices. It assesses moisture availability and utilization in absolute terms, using readily available data and widely used GIS software. Results are directly comparable across sites, and although output is created at a fine-scale, the method is applicable for larger geographic areas. Since it incorporates topography, available water capacity, and climatic variables, the model is able to directly assess the potential response of vegetation to climate change.