Articles | Volume 17, issue 9
Research article
16 Sep 2013
Research article |  | 16 Sep 2013

Land use change effects on runoff generation in a humid tropical montane cloud forest region

L. E. Muñoz-Villers and J. J. McDonnell

Abstract. While tropical montane cloud forests (TMCF) provide critical hydrological services to downstream regions throughout much of the humid tropics, catchment hydrology and impacts associated with forest conversion in these ecosystems remain poorly understood. Here, we compare the annual, seasonal and event-scale streamflow patterns and runoff generation processes of three neighbouring headwater catchments in central Veracruz (eastern Mexico) with similar pedological and geological characteristics, but different land cover: old-growth TMCF, 20 yr-old naturally regenerating TMCF and a heavily grazed pasture. We used a 2 yr record of high resolution rainfall and stream flow data (2008–2010) in combination with stable isotope and chemical tracer data collected for a series of storms during a 6-week period of increasing antecedent wetness (wetting-up cycle). Our results showed that annual and seasonal streamflow patterns in the mature and secondary forest were similar. In contrast, the pasture showed a 10% higher mean annual streamflow, most likely because of a lower rainfall interception. During the wetting-up cycle, storm runoff ratios increased at all three catchments (from 11 to 54% for the mature forest, 7 to 52% for the secondary forest and 3 to 59% for the pasture). With the increasing antecedent wetness, hydrograph separation analysis showed progressive increases of pre-event water contributions to total stormflow (from 35 to 99% in the mature forest, 26 to 92% in the secondary forest and 64 to 97% in the pasture). At all three sites, rainfall-runoff responses were dominated by subsurface flow generation processes for the majority of storms. However, for the largest and most intense storm (typically occurring once every 2 yr), sampled under wet antecedent conditions, the event water contribution in the pasture (34% on average) was much higher than in the forests (5% on average), indicating that rainfall infiltration capacity of the pasture was exceeded. This result suggests that despite the high permeability of the volcanic soils and underlying substrate in this TMCF environment, the conversion of forest to pasture may lead to important changes in runoff generation processes during large and high intensity storms. On the other hand, our results also showed that 20 yr of natural regeneration may be enough to largely restore the original hydrological conditions of this TMCF.