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Tropical forests mitigate extreme weather events
Date:12/18/2013

Tropical forests reduce peak runoff during storms and release stored water during droughts, according to researchers working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Their results lend credence to a controversial phenomenon known as the sponge effect, which is at the center of a debate about how to minimize flood damage and maximize water availability in the tropics.

During nearly 450 tropical storms, a team of visiting scientists from the University of Wyoming measured the amount of runoff from pastureland, abandoned pastureland and forested land as part of a large-scale land-use experiment in the Panama Canal watershed initiated by STRI.

Data collected by STRI staff and analyzed by University of Wyoming students indicate that land-use history has complex, long-term effects. "We measured large differences in hydrologic response between watersheds with different land-use histories and land cover," said Fred Ogden, STRI Senior Research Associate and Civil Engineering Professor at the University of Wyoming. "Our ultimate objective is to better understand these effects and include this improved understanding in a high-resolution hydrological model that we are developing to predict land-use effects in tropical watersheds."

"The result for storm peaks is spectacular," said Robert Stallard, hydrologist at STRI and the United States Geological Survey who developed the statistics for data analysis. "Storm-water runoff from grazed land is much higher than from forested land. The results are clearest after big storms." On the other hand, forests released more water than grasslands and mixed-use landscapes during the late dry season, pointing to the importance of forests in regulating water flow throughout the year in seasonal climates.

Evidence to support the sponge effect was lacking for tropical forests, leading some to question its validity. "One of reasons why there isn't more scientific evidence for the sponge effect is that you ha
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Contact: Beth King
kingb@si.edu
202-633-4700 x28216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert  

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