Changing forests—changing streams: riparian forest stand development and ecosystem function in temperate headwaters

Publication Year: 
Dana R. Warren, William S. Keeton, Peter M. Kiffney, Matthew J. Kaylor, Heather A. Bechtold, and John Magee
  • Conceptual modeling approach to understand how light flux to streams changes with forest development
  • Light flux is high in early stages of stand development, and decreases over time, with periodic increases in light due to small-scale canopy disturbances
  • Practitioners may consider that designing riparian forests with light flux to streams in mind will require considering changes in light over time

Light availability influences temperature, primary production, nutrient dynamics, and secondary production in aquatic ecosystems. In forested freshwater ecosystems, shading by streamside (riparian) vegetation is a dominant control on light flux and represents an important interaction at the aquatic-terrestrial interface. Changes in forest structure over time, particularly tree mortality processes that gradually increase light penetration through maturing forest canopies, are likely to influence stream light fluxes and associated ecosystem functions. We provide a set of conceptual models describing how stream light dynamics change with the development of complex canopy structure and how changes in light availability are likely to affect stream ecosystem processes. Shortly after a stand-replacing event, light flux to the stream is high, but light fluxes decline as canopies reestablish and close. Tree density, the degree of understory growth, patterns of tree mortality, and small-scale disturbances interact as drivers of multiple pathways of forest structural development. Changes in canopy structure will, in turn, influence stream light, which is expected to impact primary production and stream nutrient dynamics as well as the amount of autochthonous carbon supporting aquatic food webs. Ultimately, these conceptual models stress the importance of recovery from historic forest disturbances as well as future forest change as important factors influencing the long-term trajectories of ecosystem processes in headwaters.