Understanding how subsurface water storage mediates water availability to ecosystems is crucial for elucidating linkages between water, energy, and carbon cycles from local to global scales. Earth's Critical Zone (the CZ, which extends from the top of the vegetation canopy downward to fresh bedrock) includes fractured and weathered rock layers that store and release water, thereby contributing to ecosystem water supplies, and yet are not typically represented in land-atmosphere models. To investigate CZ structural controls on water storage dynamics, we intensively studied field sites in a Mediterranean climate where winter rains arrive months before peak solar energy availability, resulting in strong summertime ecosystem reliance on stored subsurface water. Intra-hillslope and catchment-wide observations of CZ water storage capacity across a lithologic boundary in the Franciscan Formation of the Northern California Coast Ranges reveal large differences in the thickness of the CZ and water storage capacity that result in a stark contrast in plant community composition and stream behavior. Where the CZ is thick, rock moisture storage supports forest transpiration and slow groundwater release sustains baseflow and salmon populations. Where the CZ is thin, limited water storage is used by an oak savanna ecosystem, and streams run dry in summer due to negligible hillslope drainage. At both sites, wet season precipitation replenishes the dynamic storage deficit generated during the summer dry season, with excess winter rains exiting the watersheds via storm runoff as perched groundwater fracture flow at the thick-CZ site and saturation overland flow at the thin-CZ site. Annual replenishment of subsurface water storage even in severe drought years may lead to ecosystem resilience to climatic perturbations: during the 2011-2015 drought there was not widespread forest die-off in the study area.
Hahm, W.J., Dietrich, W.E., Rempe, D.M., Dralle, D., Dawson, T.E., Lovill, S.M., and Bryk, A.B. (2017): The influence of Critical Zone structure on runoff paths, seasonal water storage, and ecosystem composition. American Geophysical Union 2017 Fall Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana, 11-15 December 2017 Abstract #U13B-37.
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.