In recent decades, the Rocky Mountains (RM) have undergone significant changes associated with anthropogenic activities and natural disturbances. These changes have the potential to alter primary productivity and biomass carbon storage. In particular, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in RM streams can affect heterotrophic processes, act as a source for the nutrient cycle, absorb sunlight radiation, alter metal transport, and can promote the production of carcinogenic byproducts during water treatment. Recent studies have focused on the relationship between bark beetle infestations and stream organic matter but have reached conflicting conclusions. Consequently, here we compile and process multiple datasets representing features of the RM for the period 1983–2012 with the purpose of assessing their relative influence on stream DOC concentrations using spatial statistical modeling. Features representing climate, land cover, forest disturbances, topography, soil types, and anthropogenic activities are included. We focus on DOC during base-flow conditions in RM streams because base-flow concentrations are more representative of the longer-term (annual to decadal) impacts and are less dependent on episodic, short-term storm and runoff/erosion events. To predict DOC throughout the network, we use a stream network model in a 56,550 km2
area to address the intrinsic connectivity and hydrologic directionality of the stream network. Natural forest disturbances are positively correlated with increased DOC concentrations; however, the effect of urbanization is far greater. Similarly, higher maximum temperatures, which can be exacerbated by climate change, are also associated with elevated DOC concentrations. Overall, DOC concentrations present an increasing trend over time in the RM region.
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