The evolution of root-zone moisture capacities after deforestation: a step towards hydrological predictions under change?


The core component of many hydrological systems, the moisture storage capacity available to vegetation, is impossible to observe directly at the catchment scale and is typically treated as a calibration parameter or obtained from a priori available soil characteristics combined with estimates of rooting depth. Often this parameter is considered to remain constant in time. Using long-term data (30–40 years) from three experimental catchments that underwent significant land cover change, we tested the hypotheses that: (1) the root-zone storage capacity significantly changes after deforestation, (2) changes in the root-zone storage capacity can to a large extent explain post-treatment changes to the hydrological regimes and that (3) a time-dynamic formulation of the root-zone storage can improve the performance of a hydrological model. A recently introduced method to estimate catchment-scale root-zone storage capacities based on climate data (i.e. observed rainfall and an estimate of transpiration) was used to reproduce the temporal evolution of root-zone storage capacity under change. Briefly, the maximum deficit that arises from the difference between cumulative daily precipitation and transpiration can be considered as a proxy for root-zone storage capacity. This value was compared to the value obtained from four different conceptual hydrological models that were calibrated for consecutive 2-year windows. It was found that water-balance-derived root-zone storage capacities were similar to the values obtained from calibration of the hydrological models. A sharp decline in root-zone storage capacity was observed after deforestation, followed by a gradual recovery, for two of the three catchments. Trend analysis suggested hydrological recovery periods between 5 and 13 years after deforestation. In a proof-of-concept analysis, one of the hydrological models was adapted to allow dynamically changing root-zone storage capacities, following the observed changes due to deforestation. Although the overall performance of the modified model did not considerably change, in 51% of all the evaluated hydrological signatures, considering all three catchments, improvements were observed when adding a time-variant representation of the root-zone storage to the model. In summary, it is shown that root-zone moisture storage capacities can be highly affected by deforestation and climatic influences and that a simple method exclusively based on climate data can not only provide robust, catchment-scale estimates of this critical parameter, but also reflect its timedynamic behaviour after deforestation.