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Hydrologic Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle Of A Watershed

The hydrological cycle of a defined area of landscape is a balance between inputs of water with precipitation and upstream drainage, outputs as evaporation and drainage downstream or deep into the ground, and any internal storage that may occur because of imbalances of the inputs and outputs. Hydrological budgets of landscapes are often studied on the spatial scale of watersheds, or the area of terrain from which water flows into a stream, river, or lake.

The simplest watersheds are so-called headwater systems that do not receive any drainage from watersheds at higher altitude, so the only hydrologic input occurs as precipitation, mostly as rain and snow. However, at places where fog is a common occurrence, windy conditions can effectively drive tiny atmospheric droplets of water vapor into the forest canopy, and the direct deposition of cloud water can be important. This effect has been measured for a foggy conifer forest in New Hampshire, where fogwater deposition was equivalent to 33 in (84 cm) per year, compared with 71 in (180 cm) per year of hydrologic input as rain and snow.

Vegetation can have an important influence on the rate of evaporation of water from watersheds. This hydrologic effect is especially notable for well-vegetated ecosystems such as forests, because an extensive surface area of foliage supports especially large rates of transpiration. Evapotranspiration refers to the combined rates of transpiration from foliage, and evaporation from nonliving surfaces such as moist soil or surface waters. Because transpiration is such an efficient means of evaporation, evapotranspiration from any well vegetated landscape occurs at much larger rates than from any equivalent area of non-living surface.

In the absence of evapotranspiration an equivalent quantity of water would have to drain from the watershed as seepage to deep groundwater or as streamflow. Studies of forested watersheds in Nova Scotia found that evapotranspiration was equivalent to 15-29% of the hydrologic inputs with precipitation. Runoff through streams or rivers was estimated to account for the other 71-85% of the atmospheric inputs of water, because the relatively impervious bedrock in that region prevented significant drainage to deep ground water.

Forested watersheds in seasonal climates display large variations in their rates of evapotranspiration and streamflow. This effect can be illustrated by the seasonal patterns of hydrology for a forested watershed in eastern Canada. The input of water through precipitation is 58 in (146 cm) per year, but 18% of this arrives as snow, which tends to accumulate on the surface as a persistent snowpack. About 38% of the annual input is evaporated back to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, and 62% runs off as river flow. Although there is little seasonal variation in the input of water with precipitation, there are large seasonal differences in the rates of evapotranspiration, runoff, and storage of groundwater in the watershed. Evapotranspiration occurs at its largest rates during the growing season of May to October, and runoff is therefore relatively sparse during this period. In fact, in small watersheds in this region forest streams can literally dry up because so much of the precipitation input and soil water is utilized for evapotranspiration, mostly by trees. During the autumn, much of the precipitation input serves to recharge the depleted groundwater storage, and once this is accomplished stream flows increase again. Runoff then decreases during winter, because most of the precipitation inputs occur as snow, which accumulates on the ground surface because of the prevailing sub-freezing temperatures. Runoff is largest during the early springtime, when warming temperatures cause the snowpack to melt during a short period of time, resulting in a pronounced flush of stream and river flow.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityHydrologic Cycle - Major Compartments And Fluxes Of The Hydrologic Cycle, Hydrologic Cycle Of A Watershed, Influences Of Human Activities On The Hydrologic Cycle