Transpiration is an important component of soil water storage and stream-flow and is linked with ecosystem productivity, species distribution, and ecosystem health. In mountain environments, complex topography creates heterogeneity in key controls on transpiration as well as logistical challenges for collecting representative measurements. In these settings, ecosystem models can be used to account for variation in space and time of the dominant controls on transpiration and provide estimates of transpiration patterns and their sensitivity to climate variability and change. The Regional Hydro-Ecological Simulation System (RHESSys) model was used to assess elevational differences in sensitivity of transpiration rates to the spatiotemporal variability of climate variables across the Upper Merced River watershed, Yosemite Valley, California, USA. At the basin scale, predicted annual transpiration was lowest in driest and wettest years, and greatest in moderate precipitation years (R2 = 0.32 and 0.29, based on polynomial regression of maximum snow depth and annual precipitation, respectively). At finer spatial scales, responsiveness of transpiration rates to climate differed along an elevational gradient. Low elevations (1200-1800 m) showed little interannual variation in transpiration due to topographically controlled high soil moistures along the river corridor. Annual conifer stand transpiration at intermediate elevations (1800-2150 m) responded more strongly to precipitation, resulting in a unimodal relationship between transpiration and precipitation where highest transpiration occurred during moderate precipitation levels, regardless of annual air temperatures. Higher elevations (2150-2600 m) maintained this trend, but air temperature sensitivities were greater. At these elevations, snowfall provides enough moisture for growth, and increased temperatures influenced transpiration. Transpiration at the highest elevations (2600-4000 m) showed strong sensitivity to air temperature, little sensitivity to precipitation. Model results suggest elevational differences in vegetation water use and sensitivity to climate were significant and will likely play a key role in controlling responses and vulnerability of Sierra Nevada ecosystems to climate change. Copyright ?? 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Spatial patterns of simulated transpiration response to climate variability in a snow dominated mountain ecosystem