Ecohydrology

Ecohydrology is defined as the study of how physical and biological processes interact with water cycles. Comprehensive study of water cycles requires knowledge of precipitation patterns, soil and groundwater dynamics, interactions with vegetation (i.e., evapotranspiration), and processes such as nutrient cycling and food web dynamics in aquatic ecosystems. NEON provides data drawn from an extensive network of sensors and biological collections to advance the study of ecohydrology and understand its role in ecology.

NEON ecohydrology data

Within the watersheds at NEON sites, towers collect information on water inputs to systems and airborne remote sensing data quantify the structure and chemical composition of vegetation; sensors installed in aquatic ecosystems provide data on surface and groundwater levels. Resulting NEON data products depict the chemical makeup of precipitation, groundwater and surface waters, including nutrient levels that affect terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Sampling of aquatic flora and fauna provide data essential to understanding interactions between hydrologic cycles and living organisms. Integrated NEON data may be used to compare how water moves within and throughout disparate ecosystems, from rainforests to the tundra. 

Ecological relevance

Freshwater ecosystems rank among the most stressed of global natural resource systems. Climate change, water withdrawal for urban and agricultural uses, pollution, and contamination affect streams, rivers and lakes around the world. Stream and lake ecosystems support immense biological diversity, often threatened due to environmental degradation. They also provide ecosystem services critical to society such as flood mitigation, water quality maintenance and recreation opportunities. Measures of ecohydrology, such as soil moisture, drive key processes such as decomposition, nutrient cycling and transport.

Research applications

NEON colocates ecohydrology measurements with other scientific measurements, providing a unique opportunity to examine ecological change across relevant space and time scales. NEON data may be used to address complex ecological questions, such as:

  • How will climate change affect water inputs, storage and transport?
  • Are watersheds retaining or exporting nutrients?
  • How does soil moisture affect evapotranspiration among ecosystems?
  • How do hydrological processes affect biodiversity?
  • When do biotic versus abiotic processes primarily control hydrologic exchange?

Key categories of measurements

  • Inputs: precipitation, throughfall and groundwater levels
  • Outputs and fluxes: stream and lake (inlet and outlet) discharge and evapotranspiration
  • Storage: terrestrial vegetation biomass, snow depth, lake water levels, ground water and soil moisture 
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