Satellite-derived foresummer drought sensitivity of plant productivity in Rocky Mountain headwater catchments: spatial heterogeneity and geological-geomorphological control

Haruko M. Wainwright, Christoph Steefel, Sarah D. Trutner, Amanda N. Henderson, Efthymios I. Nikolopoulos, Chelsea F. Wilmer, K. Dana Chadwick, Nicola Falco, Karl Bernard Schaettle, James Bentley Brown, Heidi Steltzer, Kenneth H. Williams, Susan S. Hubbard, Brian J. Enquist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations

Abstract

Long-term plot-scale studies have found water limitation to be a key factor driving ecosystem productivity in the Rocky Mountains. Specifically, the intensity of early summer (the 'foresummer' period from May to June) drought conditions appears to impose critical controls on peak ecosystem productivity. This study aims to (1) assess the importance of early snowmelt and foresummer drought in controlling peak plant productivity, based on the historical Landsat normalized-difference vegetation index (NDVI) and climate data; (2) map the spatial heterogeneity of foresummer drought sensitivity; and (3) identify the environmental controls (e.g. geomorphology, elevation, geology, plant types) on drought sensitivity. Our domain (15 15 km) includes four drainages within the East Water watershed near Gothic, Colorado, USA. We define foresummer drought sensitivity based on the regression slopes of the annual peak NDVI against the June Palmer Drought Severity Index between 1992 and 2010. Results show that foresummer drought sensitivity is spatially heterogeneous, and primarily dependent on the plant type and elevation. In support of the plot-based studies, we find that years with earlier snowmelt and drier foresummer conditions lead to lower peak NDVI; particularly in the low-elevation regions. Using random forest analysis, we identify additional key controls related to surface energy exchanges (i.e. potential net radiation), hydrological processes (i.e. microtopography and slope), and underlying geology. This remote-sensing-based approach for quantifying foresummer drought sensitivity can be used to identify the regions that are vulnerable or resilient to climate perturbations, as well as to inform future sampling, characterization, and modeling studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number084018
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Volume15
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 2020

Keywords

  • NDVI
  • Rocky Mountains
  • foresummer drought sensitivity
  • random forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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