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New research reveals how much forests absorb water

4 July 2023

New research is showing how effective forests are at mitigating the effects of extreme rainfall during severe weather events.

In New Zealand, high resolution data collected from Mahurangi Forest near Auckland during the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods and Cyclone Gabrielle shows that nearly 60% of the rain that fell during those events was stored within the forest rather than flowing immediately across the ground and into waterways. The forest catchment was in effect acting as a sponge, holding on to water that would otherwise have added to flooding downstream.

The data were collected as part of the Scion-led five-year NZ$13.7 million MBIE-funded Forest Flows research programme, which uses a network of 1717 sensors in 10 forests across the country. The sensors capture data every five minutes, leading to world-leading insights about forest hydrology.

The collaborative programme is led by Scion scientist Dean Meason, who says the analysis is unlocking the mysteries about how water moves through catchments and is being stored, with this year’s extreme weather events providing some unique insights.

“Our network of field sensors, meteorological and hydrological equipment has been collecting data for about two years now. A key part of the Forest Flows research is to understand how water moves through forested catchments during and after weather events that range from light rainfall to heavy storms.

“This type of analysis following extreme weather events hasn’t been done before, or at this scale.” The sheer volume of data from the enormous number of sensors across the different networks within the Forest Flows programme is the largest of its type globally.

Data from Mahurangi Forest showed that despite the huge volume of water (229 mm) that fell during Auckland Anniversary Weekend and Cyclone Gabrielle, the soil near the surface did not saturate. Nearly 60% of the rainfall was retained in the catchment (soil, shallow groundwater, and forest canopy), the remaining water made it into the stream flow. Although the storm caused larger streamflows, it would have been even greater without the forest present.

Analysis of this world-leading data is still ongoing, but it is already improving our understanding about how forests respond to extreme weather. In time, this new knowledge will boost our understanding of the site conditions that lead to catastrophic landslides and flooding in forest catchments so authorities and the forestry sector can mitigate any negative downstream effects.

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Source: Scion

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