Increasing plant water stress and decreasing summer streamflow in response to a warmer and wetter climate in seasonally snow-covered forests

Lindsey Christensen, Hallie R. Adams, Xiaonan Tai, Holly R. Barnard, Paul D. Brooks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Warming temperatures and precipitation changes are expected to alter water availability and increase drought stress in western North America, yet uncertainties remain in how concurrent changes in the amount and seasonality of precipitation interact with warming to affect hydrologic partitioning. We combined over a century of streamflow (Q) and climate observations with two decades of tree growth data and remotely sensed vegetation activity to quantify how temperature and precipitation interact to control hydrologic partitioning in the Front Range of Colorado, Boulder Creek Watershed. Temperature and precipitation significantly increased over the last five decades, with precipitation increasing primarily in winter (11.2 mm decade−1) and temperature increasing primarily during the growing season (0.12°C decade−1). In response to wetter winters and warmer summers, streamflow decreased −9.8 mm decade−1, with largest declines occurring during summer and autumn baseflow (−8.4 mm decade−1). Spring warming was associated with increases in episodic, short spring melt events, earlier and slower snowmelt and an increase in fraction of precipitation available to plants (catchment wetting or W). Warming during the growing season resulted in an increase in the fraction of W lost as evapotranspiration (ET), earlier and lower peaks in remotely sensed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and lower tree ring width index (RWI). These analyses highlight that vegetation is becoming increasingly water limited even as increases in precipitation and slower melt increase plant water availability. Further, catchment-derived metrics like the Horton Index (ET/W) provide insight in to how simultaneous changes in temperature, precipitation and melt impact vegetation across complex watersheds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2256
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


  • catchment hydrology
  • climate change
  • ecohydrology
  • plant water stress
  • snowmelt
  • water supply


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