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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2018

Towards an Improved Conceptualization of Riparian Zones in Boreal Forest Headwaters

Ledesma, Jose L. J.; Futter, Martyn N.; Blackburn, M.; Lidman, Fredrik; Grabs, Thomas; Sponseller, Ryan A.; Laudon, Hjalmar; Bishop, Kevin H.; Kohler, Stephan J.

Abstract

The boreal ecoregion supports about one-third of the world's forest. Over 90% of boreal forest streams are found in headwaters, where terrestrial-aquatic interfaces are dominated by organic matter (OM)-rich riparian zones (RZs). Because these transition zones are key features controlling catchment biogeochemistry, appropriate RZ conceptualizations are needed to sustainably manage surface water quality in the face of a changing climate and increased demands for forest biomass. Here we present a simple, yet comprehensive, conceptualization of RZ function based on hydrological connectivity, biogeochemical processes, and spatial heterogeneity. We consider four dimensions of hydrological connectivity: (1) laterally along hillslopes, (2) longitudinally along the stream, (3) vertically down the riparian profile, and (4) temporally through event-based and seasonal changes in hydrology. Of particular importance is the vertical dimension, characterized by a 'Dominant Source Layer' that has the highest contribution to solute and water fluxes to streams. In addition to serving as the primary source of OM to boreal streams, RZs shape water chemistry through two sets of OM-dependent biogeochemical processes: (1) transport and retention of OM-associated material and (2) redox-mediated transformations controlled by RZ water residence time and availability of labile OM. These processes can lead to both retention and release of pollutants. Variations in width, hydrological connectivity, and OM storage drive spatial heterogeneity in RZ biogeochemical function. This conceptualization provides a useful theoretical framework for environmental scientists and ecologically sustainable and economically effective forest management in the boreal region and elsewhere, where forest headwaters are dominated by low-gradient, OM-rich RZs.

Keywords

terrestrial-aquatic interface; riparian buffer; soil organic matter; redox; forest management; water quality; catchment biogeochemistry; hydrological connectivity; catchment heterogeneity

Published in

Ecosystems
2018, Volume: 21, number: 2, pages: 297-315