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Watershed zonation through hillslope clustering for tractably quantifying above-and below-ground watershed heterogeneity and functions

Abstract

In this study, we develop a watershed zonation approach for characterizing watershed organization and functions in a tractable manner by integrating multiple spatial data layers. We hypothesize that (1) a hillslope is an appropriate unit for capturing the watershed-scale heterogeneity of key bedrock-through-canopy properties and for quantifying the co-variability of these properties representing coupled ecohydrological and biogeochemical interactions, (2) remote sensing data layers and clustering methods can be used to identify watershed hillslope zones having the unique distributions of these properties relative to neighboring parcels, and (3) property suites associated with the identified zones can be used to understand zone-based functions, such as response to early snowmelt or drought and solute exports to the river. We demonstrate this concept using unsupervised clustering methods that synthesize airborne remote sensing data (lidar, hyperspectral, and electromagnetic surveys) along with satellite and streamflow data collected in the East River Watershed, Crested Butte, Colorado, USA. Results show that (1) we can define the scale of hillslopes at which the hillslope-averaged metrics can capture the majority of the overall variability in key properties (such as elevation, net potential annual radiation, and peak snow-water equivalent - SWE), (2) elevation and aspect are independent controls on plant and snow signatures, (3) near-surface bedrock electrical resistivity (top 20 m) and geological structures are significantly correlated with surface topography and plan species distribution, and (4) K-means, hierarchical clustering, and Gaussian mixture clustering methods generate similar zonation patterns across the watershed. Using independently collected data, we show that the identified zones provide information about zone-based watershed functions, including foresummer drought sensitivity and river nitrogen exports. The approach is expected to be applicable to other sites and generally useful for guiding the selection of hillslope-experiment locations and informing model parameterization.

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