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Headwater-dependent systems: definition, drivers of change and potential futures

Authors: Marygold Walsh-Dilley*, University of New Mexico, Alex Fremier, Washington State University, Julie Padowski, Washington State University, Jan Boll, Washington State University, Mark Stone, University of New Mexico, Christopher Scott, University of Arizona
Topics: Mountain Environments, Human-Environment Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: mountains, climate change, human-environment interactions, resilience
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Mountain headwaters provide water for billions of people and critical ecosystems worldwide and play a vital role in buffering hydrological extremes. Climate change, land use, and increasing demand for water alter the buffering capacity of headwaters and raise the likelihood of both irreversible ecological impacts and political conflict. Yet, we do not know how headwater-dependent human communities are vulnerable to and build resilience to the changing capacities of mountain headwaters. To better understand and address these dynamics, we must link social and ecological processes. However, we lack adequate data to fully understand these dynamics in most headwaters systems. Not only do we lack the data for even the most basic water-balance assessments, but we also aren’t able to project how future climate extremes will affect them and there are considerable barriers to linking these assessments to the often incongruous social data from headwater-dependent communities. In this research, we develop a conceptual, social-ecological systems approach to headwater-dependent systems (HDS) by presenting: (1) overarching definitions of ‘headwaters’ and ‘dependence,’ (2) a typology of HDSs aiming to characterize system vulnerabilities and capacities for resilience, (3) classification of cross-scale drivers of environmental and social change influencing HDSs, and (4) discussion of pressing needs for understanding HDS resilience within current and uncertain future change. For preliminary testing of the HDS approach, we consider a collection of sites across a latitudinal transect, including sites across the north-south transect of mountain ranges including Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and New Mexico and Washington states in the U.S.

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