Articles | Volume 21, issue 12
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 6289–6305, 2017

Special issue: Coupled terrestrial-aquatic approaches to watershed-scale...

Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 21, 6289–6305, 2017

Research article 13 Dec 2017

Research article | 13 Dec 2017

Modeling the potential impacts of climate change on the water table level of selected forested wetlands in the southeastern United States

Jie Zhu1,2,3, Ge Sun4, Wenhong Li3, Yu Zhang3, Guofang Miao5,6, Asko Noormets6, Steve G. McNulty4, John S. King6, Mukesh Kumar3, and Xuan Wang1,2 Jie Zhu et al.
  • 1State Key Laboratory of Water Environment Simulation, School of Environment, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • 2Key Laboratory for Water and Sediment Sciences of the Ministry of Education, School of Environment, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • 3Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA
  • 4Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, USDA Forest Service, Raleigh, North Carolina 27606, USA
  • 5Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois 61801, USA
  • 6Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695, USA

Abstract. The southeastern United States hosts extensive forested wetlands, providing ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, water quality improvement, groundwater recharge, and wildlife habitat. However, these wetland ecosystems are dependent on local climate and hydrology, and are therefore at risk due to climate and land use change. This study develops site-specific empirical hydrologic models for five forested wetlands with different characteristics by analyzing long-term observed meteorological and hydrological data. These wetlands represent typical cypress ponds/swamps, Carolina bays, pine flatwoods, drained pocosins, and natural bottomland hardwood ecosystems. The validated empirical models are then applied at each wetland to predict future water table changes using climate projections from 20 general circulation models (GCMs) participating in Coupled Model Inter-comparison Project 5 (CMIP5) under the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) 4.5 and 8.5 scenarios. We show that combined future changes in precipitation and potential evapotranspiration would significantly alter wetland hydrology including groundwater dynamics by the end of the 21st century. Compared to the historical period, all five wetlands are predicted to become drier over time. The mean water table depth is predicted to drop by 4 to 22 cm in response to the decrease in water availability (i.e., precipitation minus potential evapotranspiration) by the year 2100. Among the five examined wetlands, the depressional wetland in hot and humid Florida appears to be most vulnerable to future climate change. This study provides quantitative information on the potential magnitude of wetland hydrological response to future climate change in typical forested wetlands in the southeastern US.

Short summary
Forested wetlands provide myriad ecosystem services threatened by climate change. This study develops empirical hydrologic models by synthesizing hydrometeorological data across the southeastern US. We used global climate projections to model hydrological changes for five wetlands. We found all wetlands are predicted to become drier by the end of this century. This study suggests that climate change may substantially affect wetland biogeochemical cycles and other functions in the future.