Ecohydrological assessment of the water balance of the world's highest elevation tropical forest (Polylepis)

Giovanny M. Mosquera, Franklin Marín, Aldemar Carabajo-Hidalgo, Heidi Asbjornsen, Rolando Célleri, Patricio Crespo

Producción científica: Contribución a una revistaArtículorevisión exhaustiva


Polylepis trees grow at elevations above the continuous tree line (3000–5000 m a.s.l.) across the Andes. They tolerate extreme environmental conditions, making them sensitive bioindicators of global climate change. Therefore, investigating their ecohydrological role is key to understanding how the water cycle of Andean headwaters could be affected by predicted changes in environmental conditions, as well as ongoing Polylepis reforestation initiatives in the region. We estimate, for the first time, the annual water balance of a mature Polylepis forest (Polylepis reticulata) catchment (3780 m a.s.l.) located in the south Ecuadorian páramo using a unique set of field ecohydrological measurements including gross rainfall, throughfall, streamflow, and xylem sap flow in combination with the characterization of forest and soil features. We also compare the forest water balance with that of a tussock grass (Calamagrostis intermedia) catchment, the dominant páramo vegetation. Annual gross rainfall during the study period (April 2019–March 2020) was 1290.6 mm yr−1. Throughfall in the Polylepis forest represented 61.2 % of annual gross rainfall. Streamflow was the main component of the water balance of the forested site (59.6 %), while its change in soil water storage was negligible (<1 %). Forest evapotranspiration was 54.0 %, with evaporation from canopy interception (38.8 %) more than twice as high as transpiration (15.1 %). The error in the annual water balance of the Polylepis catchment was small (<15 %), providing confidence in the measurements and assumptions used to estimate its components. In comparison, streamflow and evapotranspiration at the grassland site accounted for 63.7 and 36.0 % of the water balance, respectively. Although evapotranspiration was larger in the forest catchment, its water yield was only marginally reduced (<4 %) in relation to the grassland catchment. The substantially higher soil organic matter content in the forest site (47.6 %) compared to the grassland site (31.8 %) suggests that even though Polylepis forests do not impair the hydrological function of high-Andean catchments, their presence contributes to carbon storage in the litter layer of the forest and the underlying soil. These findings provide key insights into the vegetation-water‑carbon nexus in high Andean ecosystems, which can serve as a basis for future ecohydrological studies and improved management of páramo natural resources considering changes in land use and global climate.

Idioma originalInglés
Número de artículo173671
PublicaciónScience of the Total Environment
EstadoPublicada - 1 set. 2024


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