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4 Case Study: The Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study as a Lens into the Development of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry

4 Case Study: The Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study as a Lens into the Development of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry

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1 Historical Roots of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry


The establishment of the HBEF arose from flood control surveys associated with

the 1936 Omnibus Act. For forestlands in New England, the responsibility for

conducting flood control surveys fell to the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station

of the USDA Forest Service. The Forest Service was frustrated by the lack of

guidance on these surveys and expressed the need for “experimental data on the

relation of character of vegetative cover to run-off” (Hornbeck 2001). Eventually,

with a Congressional appropriation in 1954 to establish watershed management

studies in the mountains of New England, the Hubbard Brook Valley was selected

as the best suited site for research in the White Mountains and the Experimental

Forest was established in 1955 (Hornbeck 2001). Well-known names in forest

hydrology were associated with the establishment and early construction of

HBEF such as Howard W. Lull, George R. Trimble Jr., Richard S. Sartz,

C. Anthony Federer, and Robert S. Pierce. Shortly after the establishment of the

HBEF, basic hydrologic characteristics of the northern hardwood forest and the

HBEF were assessed such as precipitation (Leonard and Reinhart 1963), snow

accumulation/melt (Sartz and Trimble 1956; Federer 1965), soil frost and infiltration (Trimble et al. 1958), canopy interception (Leonard 1961), and streamflow

(Hart 1966).

The HBES began in June 1963 when Bormann and Likens had a proposal funded

by the National Science Foundation to study “Hydrologic-mineral cycle interaction

in a small forested watershed.” From the start, collaboration (e.g., with Johnson and

Pierce) was seen as an important aspect of success in the HBES. Within two

decades, numerous senior investigators, postdoctoral associates and graduate

students, and some half-dozen governmental agencies and private foundations

supported or participated in the research of the HBES. This level of support,

a prolific publication record, the longest running dataset of watershed biogeochemistry (see www.hubbardbrook.org), and a strong international reputation positioned

the HBES for National Science Foundation funding in the Long-Term Ecological

Research program, which began in 1988 and continues today (Lindenmayer and

Likens 2010).


Watershed-Ecosystem Nutrient Budgets

The earliest work to come from the HBES was the study of nutrient budgets for six

of the small, south-facing watershed-ecosystems at HBEF (Likens et al. 1967;

Bormann and Likens 1967). Although prior to the HBES, there was considerable

literature on the chemistry of streams and nutrient cycling on components of

ecosystems, this study was the first to estimate nutrient budgets for an entire

ecosystem and demonstrate the advantages of the small watershed approach

(Fig. 1.2). Likens et al. (1967) found an overall net loss of cations (Ca2+, Mg2+,

Na+, K+) (i.e., stream water outputs > precipitation inputs) suggesting a contribution of these elements from biogeochemical reactions within the ecosystem, notably

chemical weathering. This study suggested that the small-watershed approach


K.J. McGuire and G.E. Likens

could be used to estimate difficult-to-measure processes, e.g., weathering and

evapotranspiration, for an entire watershed through quantitative mass balance

analysis (Bormann and Likens 1967). Likewise, the long-term data suggested net

retention of some nutrients (NH4+, PO43À, H+) or patterns that change over time in

others (K+, NO3À, SO42À, ClÀ) reflecting the complex interactions between atmospheric inputs, biotic activity, and climate variations (Likens and Bormann 1995;

Likens 2004).


Effects of Vegetation on Nutrient Cycling

During the winter of 1965–1966, Bormann, Likens, and colleagues conducted a

manipulation experiment on one of the six watersheds at the HBEF (Bormann et al.

1968). The experiment was designed to “test the homeostatic capacity of the

ecosystem to adjust to cutting of the vegetation and herbicide treatment” (Likens

et al. 1970). In other words, the objective was to maintain the watershed vegetationfree for several years (i.e., 3) to examine the influence of vegetation on water and

nutrient flux and cycling. The experiment produced drastic changes in hydrology,

nutrient flux, and sedimentation. The primary effect of the experiment was a sharp

reduction in transpiration, which translated to increases in streamflow during the

critical low flow months of June through September (Hornbeck et al. 1970)

(Fig. 1.3). There was also some advance in the timing of snowmelt and observed

increases in high flow values (quickflow volumes and instantaneous peaks) during

the growing season; however, fall and winter high flows were not significantly

affected by the forest clearing (Hornbeck et al. 1970; Hornbeck 1973). These

changes in hydrology, mainly during low flows in the summer months, also affected

the nutrient flux and cycling.

Nitrogen, which is normally conserved in undisturbed ecosystems (Likens

et al. 1969), was rapidly released as nitrate in the cutover watershed (Fig. 1.3).

Decomposition and especially nitrification were greatly accelerated with the production of nitrate and hydrogen ion. The increased production of nitrate and the

absence of nutrient uptake by vegetation facilitated the loss of nitrate and other

nutrients such as Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, and K+ (Bormann et al. 1968; Likens et al. 1969,

1970) (Fig. 1.3). Only sulfate concentrations decreased in stream water of the

deforested watershed (Fig. 1.3d). Likens et al. (1969) suggested that dilution from

increased streamflow and decreased oxidation of sulfur compounds due to nitrate

toxicity of sulfur-oxidizing bacteria might explain the pattern. But Nodvin et al.

(1986) showed that increased acidity associated with nitrification could have

increased the sulfate adsorption capacity of the soil, thereby reducing stream

water concentrations.

At the time of this experiment, the changes in hydrology were expected;

however, the changes in microbial activity and nutrient output were not as intuitive.

Specifically, the losses of cations were 3–20 times greater than from the comparable

undisturbed watershed. Although the experiment was not designed to simulate a

1 Historical Roots of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry




Pre−treatment 95% Confidence Limit

Growing season

Dormant season







(mg / L)



Reference watershed

Treated watershed



(mg / L)

Streamflow changes from

treated watershed (mm / month)







SO42+ (mg / L)















Fig. 1.3 Hydrological (a) and biogeochemical (b–d) response from the manipulation experiment

of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study (Likens et al. 1970; Hornbeck et al. 1970). Vegetation was

removed from Watershed 2 (the “treated watershed”) in December 1965 and January 1966 and

treated with herbicide during the summers of 1966, 1967, and 1968. (a) Changes from expected

streamflow, based on the monthly regression between reference Watershed 3 and treated Watershed 2 prior to treatment, are most significant during the growing season for approximately 5–6

years. (b–d) Major biogeochemical changes (e.g., calcium, nitrate, and sulfate) in the treated

watershed, when compared to the reference Watershed 6, also increase for a period of approximately 5–8 years. Chemical concentrations are volume-weighted, mean monthly values

commercial clearcut, the results suggested that the ecosystem had limited capacity

to retain nutrients when vegetation is removed, which could have important implications for forest management (Likens et al. 1978). In calcium deficient soils, for

example, forest harvest and leaching losses could deplete soil nutrient capital

(Federer et al. 1989).


K.J. McGuire and G.E. Likens

The deforestation experiment at HBEF was followed by commercial harvesting

experiments and comparisons to commercial clearcuts in the region (Likens et al.

1978; Hornbeck et al. 1986). These studies showed that the increased concentrations of nutrients in stream water ranged from a few to about 50% of the initial

deforestation experiment (Likens et al. 1978). In addition, these studies showed that

ecosystem recovery can occur rapidly (Hornbeck et al. 1986). Nutrient fluxes return

to predisturbance levels in only a few years even though transpiration may be

affected for longer periods (Martin et al. 2000). The time required for ecosystem

recovery (hydrologically and biogeochemically) following forest harvest will

depend on a number of factors such as type of harvest, severity of disturbance

(e.g., size of the cut area, soil and stream channel disturbance), physiography of the

site (aspect, slope, etc.), type of vegetation, climate and so forth (Likens et al. 1978;

Likens 1985; Martin and Hornbeck 1989; Hornbeck et al. 1997). It was suggested

that a site should not be cut more often than 75 years for the forest to be sustainable

(Likens et al. 1978). Bormann and Likens (1979) proposed an overall biomass

accumulation model for how forested ecosystems develop, and then reorganize and

recover from disturbance.


Acid Rain: Transforming Disturbance into Opportunity

The first precipitation sample collected at Hubbard Brook in July of 1963 had a pH

of 3.4. It was clear from the beginning of the HBES that the precipitation was acid,

but it took several years to discover the cause and nature of its occurrence (Likens

et al. 1972; Cogbill and Likens 1974; Likens and Bormann 1974; Likens 1989,

2004, 2010). Acid precipitation had been documented in Europe (e.g., Barret and

Brodin 1955), but the first published account of acid precipitation in North America

was made at the HBEF (Likens et al. 1972). The small watershed approach and the

resulting long-term records on inputs and outputs of chemical constituents of the

HBES provided the necessary data to address concerns of acid deposition effects on

forested and associated aquatic ecosystems.

These long-term datasets from HBEF were able to show that changes in SO2

emissions from source areas upwind of HBEF, as a result of federal legislation,

were strongly correlated with sulfate concentrations in precipitation and stream

water (Likens et al. 2001, 2002). The deposition of NO3À was also correlated with

increasing NOx emissions, which could become the dominant acid in precipitation

in the future without further controls on emissions (Likens and Lambert 1998).

Perhaps, the most surprising result of acid deposition research of HBES was that of

soil base cation depletion (Likens et al. 1996). Calcium and other plant nutrients

had been depleted in soils due to acid precipitation inputs and as a result of base

cation losses, the forest ecosystem is much more sensitive to continuing acid

deposition inputs than previously estimated (Likens et al. 1996; Likens 2004).

With increased leaching of base cations in low base saturated soils, the mobilization

and leaching of inorganic aluminum can occur, which is toxic to terrestrial and

1 Historical Roots of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry


aquatic biota (Cronan and Schofield 1990; Palmer and Driscoll 2002). As much as

one half of the pool of exchangeable calcium in the soil at the HBEF has been

depleted during the past 50 years by acid deposition (Likens et al. 1996, 1998).

To examine the effects of depletion of soil calcium, a new whole-watershed

experiment is now underway as part of the HBES in which calcium silicate was

added in 1999 to replace the calcium leached from acid deposition (e.g., Peters et al.

2004; Groffman et al. 2006).

The long-term records at the HBEF have made invaluable contributions to the

knowledge base for developing policy, federal legislation, and management related

to air pollution (Driscoll et al. 2001; Likens 2004, 2010). The complexity of

ecosystem response to changes in atmospheric deposition is one example of how,

by combining the talents of diverse disciplines, novel scientific approaches (e.g.,

the small watershed approach, experiment manipulation, modeling, or natural

disturbance), and long-term study, critical problems associated with environmental

change may be better understood.


Models as Learning and Predictive Tools

The HBES has resulted in one of the most extensive and longest continuous databases

on the hydrology, biology, geology, and chemistry of natural ecosystems. Although

the strengths of the HBES stem from field-based experiments, ecosystem-scale

manipulation, and long-term study, models have been a major part of the research

providing additional insight into hydrologic, ecosystem, and biogeochemical trends

and processes.

One of the earliest hydrologic simulation models for forested watersheds

was the BROOK model that was developed specifically for eastern US watersheds

and HBEF (Federer and Lash 1978). The BROOK model (the latest version is

BROOK90, Federer 2002) is a parameter-rich, one-dimensional model of soil

water movement among multiple soil layers that includes relationships for infiltration processes, energy-based evapotranspiration and snowmelt, and streamflow

generation by different flowpaths (e.g., variable source areas) (Federer et al.

2003). It has been used to examine differences in transpiration among hardwood

species using data from HBEF and Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory (Federer and

Lash 1978) and to simulate streamflow for cutting experiments when streamflow was not observed (e.g., Hornbeck et al. 1986). Federer and Lash (1978)

demonstrated that shifts of 2-week increases or decreases in the timing of senescence or leaf out could cause differences in simulated annual streamflow by

Ỉ10–60 mm. When daily transpiration was varied by 20% in the BROOK model

as to reflect realistic differences in stomatal conductance among species, differences in simulated streamflow ranged from 15 to 120 mm annually. Today,

the results of Federer and Lash can be placed in the context of climate change

where observed increases in growing season length have been documented

(Huntington et al. 2009).


K.J. McGuire and G.E. Likens

Ecosystem models have been part of the HBES since the early 1970s. The

JABOWA model (Botkin et al. 1972a, b), a forest growth simulator, was the forerunner of many models used today and underpinned the conceptual model development

of Bormann and Likens (1979). Another model that has been used extensively in

the HBES and at other sites (e.g., Harvard Forest) is the PnET (Photosynthetic/

EvapoTranspiration) model (Aber and Federer 1992). The PnET model is essentially

a series of simple, lumped-parameter nested models (PnET-II, PnET-Day, PnET-CN)

that simulate carbon, water, and nitrogen dynamics for temperate forest ecosystems

(Aber et al. 1997). The modules include nutrient allocation, water balance, soil

respiration, and canopy photosynthesis that produce a monthly time-step carbon and

water model, which is driven by nitrogen availability and cycling within an ecosystem.

The PnET-CN model was used to investigate long-term stream water nitrate trends

from the reference watershed at HBEF (Aber et al. 2002). Long-term nitrate concentrations in stream water have declined since the mid-1960s, which were unexpected

and counter to prevailing theories given a maturing forest and constant atmospheric N

deposition (Goodale et al. 2003; Judd et al. 2011). Simulations from PnET-CN

suggest that early in the record (1965–1990), temporal variations in stream nitrate

concentration at HBEF were largely driven by climatic variation and a series of small

disturbances (Aber et al. 2002). They concluded that nitrate losses from the reference

watershed were elevated in the 1960s due to a combination of recovery from extreme

drought and a significant defoliation event.

Other models that have been important to the HBES include CHESS (Santore

and Driscoll 1995) and ALCHEMI (Schecher and Driscoll 1995). These models

calculate geochemical equilibria in soils and estimate soil solution chemical concentrations. However, PnET-BGC, is an integrated biogeochemical model incorporating the components of PnET-CN and of major element cycles (i.e., Ca2+,

Mg2+, Na+, K+, Si, S, P, Al3+, ClÀ, and FÀ) in forest and interconnected aquatic

ecosystems. The PnET-BGC model simulates the interaction of the processes in

soil, vegetation, water, and atmosphere to determine the chemical characteristics

of stream water and soil water before emerging as runoff (Gbondo-Tugbawa

et al. 2001). This model has been used to assess the long-term effects of air

pollution on the Hubbard Brook ecosystem (e.g., Driscoll et al. 2001; GbondoTugbawa et al. 2002).


Closing Thoughts

This chapter began by introducing the early foundations of forest influences on

water and ended by providing examples from the HBES where long-term records,

whole-watershed manipulation, field experiments, modeling, and scores of investigators are unraveling the ecological, biogeochemical, and hydrological workings of

a forested ecosystem. The HBES is not unique and has served as a model for

watershed-based ecosystem studies around the world. Many comprehensive ecosystem studies and individual research efforts worldwide are contributing to the

1 Historical Roots of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry


science of forest hydrology, ecosystem science, and biogeochemistry. Forested

landscapes are changing with increased fragmentation, the spread of invasive

species and disease, urban/suburban development, forest management for biomass

energy, climate and global change, and shifting ownership patterns (NRC 2008).

These complex problems will require the development of new approaches for

studying complicated ecosystems, but also learning from lessons of past research.

Some perspectives from the HBES include:





Be opportunistic and learn from surprises.

Focus on linkages, feedbacks, and coupling between ecosystem processes and

the interactions of air, land, and water.

Maintain critical, high-quality, long-term data for understanding patterns and

trends in complex ecosystems.

Develop multidisciplinary, highly collaborative teams, including social sciences,

to tackle complex environmental problems.

Forest hydrology and biogeochemistry have evolved and continue to grow as

new challenges arise. The remainder of this book aims to synthesize past research

and forge future research directions by forest type, process, and stressor. Research

topics that are likely to remain high priority in forest hydrology and biogeochemistry are issues related to climate and global change, managing forests for biomass

energy feedstocks, and interactions among convergent biogeochemical cycles and

between social and biophysical systems. There is also a need for more integration

and interpretation of results over large scales (regional to global) and in landscapes

where forest land-use/land cover is part of the larger system.

Acknowledgments The HBEF is operated and maintained by the USDA Forest Service, Northern

Research Station, Newtown Square, PA. Financial support for the long-term, ecological, and

biogeochemical research at the HBEF is provided by the National Science Foundation, including

the LTER and LTREB programs, and from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This paper is a

contribution to the program of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study. We thank Sheila ChristopherGokkaya, W. Michael Aust, and an anonymous reviewer for providing comments on an earlier

version of this chapter. Also, we thank Dave DeWalle for helpful suggestions and advice on the

history of forest hydrology.


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4 Case Study: The Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study as a Lens into the Development of Forest Hydrology and Biogeochemistry

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