By Robbie S.H. Johnson and Younes Alila
Drawing on advances in non-stationary frequency analysis and the science of causation and attribution, this study employs a newly developed non-stationary stochastic paired watershed approach to determine the effect of forest harvesting on snowmelt-generated floods. Moreover, this study furthers the application of stochastic physics to evaluate the environmental controls and drivers of flood response. Physically-based climate and time-varying harvesting data are used as covariates to drive the non-stationary flood frequency distribution parameters to detect, attribute, and quantify the effect of harvesting on floods in the snow-dominated Deadman River (878 km2) and nested Joe Ross Creek (99 km2) watersheds. Harvesting only 21% of the watershed caused a 38% and 84% increase in the mean but no increase in variability around the mean of the frequency distribution in the Deadman River and Joe Ross Creek, respectively. Consequently, the 7-year, 20-year, 50-year, and 100-year flood events became approximately two, four, six, and ten times more frequent in both watersheds. An increase in the mean is posited to occur from an increase in moisture availability following harvest from suppressed snow interception and increased net radiation reaching the snowpack. Variability was not increased because snowmelt synchronization was inhibited by the buffering capacity of abundant lakes, evenly distributed aspects, and widespread spatial distribution of cutblocks in the watersheds, preventing any potential for harvesting to increase the efficiency of runoff delivery to the outlet. Consistent with similar recent studies, the effect of logging on floods is controlled not only by the harvest rate but most importantly the physiographic characteristics of the watershed and the spatial distribution of the cutblocks. Imposed by the probabilistic framework to understanding and predicting the relation between extremes and their environmental controls, commonly used in the general sciences but not forest hydrology, it is the inherent nature of snowmelt-driven flood regimes which cause even modest increases in magnitude, especially in the upper tail of the distribution, to translate into surprisingly large changes in frequency. Contrary to conventional wisdom, harvesting influenced small, medium, and very large flood events, and the sensitivity to harvest increased with increasing flood event size and watershed area.