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Discovery
Earth Week: Bark beetles change Rocky Mountain stream flows, affect water quality

What happens when millions of dead trees, killed by beetles, no longer need water?

Gray trees killed by bark beetles between green trees in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Gray trees killed by bark beetles pepper the landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Credit and Larger Version

April 21, 2014

The following is part fourteen in a series on the National Science Foundation's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment. Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen in this series are available on the NSF website.

On Earth Week--and in fact, every week now--trees in mountains across the western United States are dying, thanks to an infestation of bark beetles that reproduce in the trees' inner bark.

Some species of the beetles, such as the mountain pine beetle, attack and kill live trees. Others live in dead, weakened or dying hosts.

In Colorado alone, the mountain pine beetle has caused the deaths of more than 3.4 million acres of pine trees.

What effect do all these dead trees have on stream flow and water quality? Plenty, according to new research findings reported this week.

Dead trees don't drink water

"The unprecedented tree deaths caused by these beetles provided a new approach to estimating the interaction of trees with the water cycle in mountain headwaters like those of the Colorado and Platte Rivers," says hydrologist Reed Maxwell of the Colorado School of Mines.

Maxwell and colleagues have published results of their study of beetle effects on stream flows in this week's issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

As the trees die, they stop taking up water from the soil, known as transpiration. Transpiration is the process of water movement through a plant and its evaporation from leaves, stems and flowers.

The "unused" water then becomes part of the local groundwater and leads to increased water flows in nearby streams.

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) Program. WSC is part of NSF's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability initiative.

"Large-scale tree death due to pine beetles has many negative effects," says Tom Torgersen of NSF's Directorate for Geosciences and lead WSC program director.

"This loss of trees increases groundwater flow and water availability, seemingly a positive," Torgersen says.

"The total effect, however, of the extensive tree death and increased water flow has to be evaluated for how much of an increase, when does such an increase occur, and what's the water quality of the resulting flow?"

The answers aren't always good ones.

Green means go, red means stop, even for trees

Under normal circumstances, green trees use shallow groundwater in late summer for transpiration.

Red- and gray-phase trees--those affected by beetle infestations--stop transpiring, leading to higher water tables and greater water availability for groundwater flow to streams.

The new results show that the fraction of late-summer groundwater flows from affected watersheds is about 30 percent higher after beetles have infested an area, compared with watersheds with less severe beetle attacks.

"Water budget analysis confirms that transpiration loss resulting from beetle kill can account for the increase in groundwater contributions to streams," write Maxwell and scientists Lindsay Bearup and John McCray of the Colorado School of Mines, and David Clow of the U.S. Geological Survey, in their paper.

Dead trees create changes in water quality

"Using 'fingerprints' of different water sources, defined by the sources' water chemistry, we found that a higher fraction of late-summer streamflow in affected watersheds comes from groundwater rather than surface flows," says Bearup.

"Increases in stream flow and groundwater levels are very hard to detect because of fluctuations from changes in climate and in topography. Our approach using water chemistry allows us to 'dissect' the water in streams and better understand its source."

With millions of dead trees, adds Maxwell, "we asked: What's the potential effect if the trees stop using water? Our findings not only identify this change, but quantify how much water trees use."

An important implication of the research, Bearup says, is that the change can alter water quality.

The new results, she says, help explain earlier work by Colorado School of Mines scientists. "That research found an unexpected spike in carcinogenic disinfection by-products in late summer in water treatment plants."

Where were those water treatment plants located? In bark beetle-infested watersheds.

--  Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov

Investigators
Reed Maxwell
Eric Dickenson
Jonathan Sharp
Alexis Navarre-Sitchler

Related Institutions/Organizations
Colorado School of Mines

Related Awards
#1204787 WSC-CATEGORY 2 COLLABORATIVE: WATER QUALITY AND SUPPLY IMPACTS FROM CLIMATE-INDUCED INSECT TREE MORTALITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN WEST

Total Grants
$2,307,644

Related Websites
NSF Awards Grants for Study of Water Sustainability and Climate: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=117819
How Is Earth's Water System Linked With Land Use, Climate Change and Ecosystems?: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=125434
NSF Discoveries in Sustainability: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2012/disco12001/disco12001.pdf
Ghosts of Forests Past: Bark Beetles Kill Lodgepole Pines, Affecting Entire Watersheds: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=128398

green, red and gray trees
Trees go from green and healthy, to red and dying, and finally to gray and dead, from bark beetles.
Credit and Larger Version

Researcher collecting precipitation samples
Precipitation samples were collected to determine their unique chemical fingerprints.
Credit and Larger Version

Man walking through snow near a forest with dead and live trees.
Snow processes change as beetles kill lodgepole pines and trees no longer shade snowbanks.
Credit and Larger Version

Researcher with water sample taken from the Big Thompson River
Water samples were taken from the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Credit and Larger Version

Lodgepole pines are regrowing among trees killed by beetles
Lodgepole pines are beginning to regrow in areas where trees had once been beetle-killed.
Credit and Larger Version



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