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Carbon and Water Exchanges in a Mountain Meadow Ecosystem, Sierra Nevada, California


Ecosystem-atmosphere exchanges of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor were investigated in a moist mountain meadow (Loney Meadow) at 1822 m MSL in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. An eddy covariance (EC) tower was deployed for most of the snow-free period from May to September 2016. The meadow ecosystem progressed from a strong sink of CO2 in the peak of the growing season under saturated to wet soil conditions (−18.51 gC m−2 d−1) to a weak source (2.97 gC m−2 d−1) following a rapid decline in soil moisture as runoff decreased. The variability of Net Ecosystem Exchange (NEE) over diurnal, synoptic and seasonal timescales was dominated by Gross Primary Production (GPP) which ranged from 43 gC m−2 d−1 during the peak of the growing season to 19 gC m−2 d−1 during senescence. Ecosystem respiration was small in magnitude and variability compared to GPP. Approximations of annual NEE for the meadow ranged from −285 to −450 gC m−2 yr−1, which is high compared to grasslands, and more similar to mature wetland or forest ecosystems. At diurnal and synoptic scales, CO2 flux was driven most strongly by photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), while seasonally, the ecosystem was linked closely to changes in soil moisture. Light-use and water-use efficiencies of the meadow ecosystem were high compared with those found in most other ecosystems using comparable observations. These results suggest meadows have the potential to be large sinks of atmospheric CO2 and that their ability to do so is sensitive to water table height. This is important for understanding the future of carbon sequestration in mountain meadows in the context of changing hydroclimates and different land management decisions that impact meadow hydrology.

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All data used in this study are freely available by contacting the corresponding author.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the US Forest Service for access to the meadow and South Yuba River Citizens League for field support and coordination. In particular we are grateful to Rachel Hutchinson for providing useful additional data and advice on this manuscript. The authors would also like to thank Quentin Clark for invaluable field support, the SFSU Department of Geography & Environment for providing transportation to the field site and some field sampling equipment, and the SFSU College of Science & Engineering for funds to acquire the multispectral camera and drone platform. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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External funding was not available for this study. Transportation for fieldwork was provided by San Francisco State University, Dept. of Geography & Environment.

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Study conception, design and most fieldwork was conducted by DB and AO. JD conducted field collection and analysis of drone imagery. Data analysis was principally conducted by DB and AO and the initial manuscript was drafted by DB. All authors worked on all drafts of the manuscript thereafter, with particular focus on meadow hydrogeomorphology by JD and biometeorological aspects by DB and AO. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Andrew J. Oliphant.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest or competing interests related to material in this study.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Wetlands and Global change

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Blackburn, D.A., Oliphant, A.J. & Davis, J.D. Carbon and Water Exchanges in a Mountain Meadow Ecosystem, Sierra Nevada, California. Wetlands 41, 39 (2021).

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  • Mountain meadow
  • Carbon cycle
  • Evapotranspiration
  • Biometeorology, ecosystems