Forests and water yield: A synthesis of disturbance effects on streamflow and snowpack in western coniferous forests

Synthesis/Technical Report icon

View the synthesis article.

In coniferous western forests, recent widespread tree mortality provided opportunities to test the long-held theory that forest cover loss increases water yield. We reviewed 78 studies of hydrologic response to standing-replacing (severe wildfire, harvest) or nonstand-replacing (drought, insects, low-severity wildfire) disturbances, and reassessed the question: Does water yield or snowpack increase after forest disturbance? Collective results indicate that postdisturbance streamflow and snowpack may increase, not change, or even decrease, and illuminate factors that may help improve predictability of hydrologic response to disturbance. Contrary to the expectation that tree mortality reduces evapotranspiration, making more water available as runoff, postdisturbance evapotranspiration sometimes increased—particularly following nonstand-replacing disturbance—
because of (a) increased evaporation resulting from higher subcanopy radiation, and (b) increased transpiration resulting from rapid postdisturbance growth. Postdisturbance hydrologic response depends on vegetation structure, climate, and topography, and new hypotheses continue to be formulated and tested in this rapidly evolving discipline.

Stay Connected