Climate change impacts on freshwater wetland hydrology and vegetation cover cycling along a regional aridity gradient

Philip A. Fay, Glenn R Guntenspergen, Jennifer Olker, W. Carter Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Global mean temperature may increase up to 6°C by the end of this century and together with precipitation change may steepen regional aridity gradients. The hydrology, productivity, and ecosystem services from freshwater wetlands depend on their future water balance. We simulated the hydrology and vegetation dynamics of wetland complexes in the North American Prairie Pothole Region with the WETLANDSCAPE model. Simulations for 63 precipitation × temperature combinations spanning 6°C warming and -20% to +20% annual precipitation change at 19 locations along a mid-continental aridity gradient showed that aridity explained up to 99% of the variation in wetland stage and hydroperiod for all wetland permanence types, and in vegetation cycling for semipermanent wetlands. The magnitude and direction of hydrologic responses depended on whether climate changes increased or decreased water deficits. Warming to 6°C and 20% less precipitation increased wetland water deficits and more strongly decreased wetland stage and hydroperiod from historic levels at low aridity, especially in semipermanent wetlands, where peak vegetation cycling (Cover Cycle Index, CCI) also shifted to lower aridity. In contrast, 20% more precipitation decreased water deficits, increasing wetland stage and hydroperiod most strongly in shallow wetlands at high aridity, but filling semipermanent wetlands and reducing CCI at low aridity. All climate changes narrowed the range of aridity favorable to high productivity. Climate changes that reduce water deficits may help maintain wetlands at high aridity at the expense of those at low aridity, but with warming certain, increased deficits are more likely and will help maintain wetlands at lower aridity but exacerbate loss of wetlands at high aridity. Thus, there is likely not a universally applicable approach to mitigating climate change impacts on freshwater wetlands across regional aridity gradients. Conservation strategies need to account for aridity-specific effects of climate change on freshwater wetland ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01504
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
National Science Foundation (Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences 1339944

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Fay et al.


  • Ecosystem models
  • Ecosystem services
  • Grasslands
  • Prairie Pothole Region
  • Precipitation gradient
  • Wetland complexes
  • Wetland conservation


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