Stream response to an extreme drought-induced defoliation event

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We assessed stream ecosystem-level response to a drought-induced defoliation event by gypsy moth caterpillars (Lymantria dispar) with high-frequency water quality sensors. The defoliation event was compared to the prior year of data. Based on long-term records of precipitation and drought indices, the drought of 2015–2016 in Rhode Island, USA was an extreme climatic event that preceded and likely precipitated the defoliation from insect infestation. Canopy cover in the riparian area was reduced by over 50% increasing light availability which warmed the stream and stimulated autotrophic activity. Frass and leaf detritus contributed particulate carbon and organic nutrients to the stream. Based on locally calibrated s::can spectro::lyser data, nitrate concentration and flux did not significantly increase during defoliation while orthophosphate concentration and flux did significantly increase during part of the defoliation period. Lower mean daily dissolved oxygen (DO) levels and wider diel cycles of DO indicated higher biological activity during the defoliation event. Stream metabolism metrics were also significantly higher during defoliation and pointed to heterotrophic activity dominating in the stream. The increases in stream metabolism were low compared to other studies; in streams with higher nutrient levels (e.g., in agricultural or urban watersheds) the increase in light and temperature could have a stronger influence on stream metabolism. The in-stream metabolic processes and nutrient fluxes observed in response to the drought-driven defoliation event resulted from the long-term deployment of high-frequency water sensors. The proliferation of these water sensors now enable studies that assess ecosystem responses to stochastic, unusual disturbances.

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