The Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory

Part of the Coweeta basin, viewed from a lookout tower. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Much of what we know today about the hydrology of forested watersheds was learned through early research at the U.S. Forest Service Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory (Coweeta).

Established in 1933 as the Coweeta Experimental Forest, the laboratory represents the longest continuous environmental study on any landscape in North America, as well as one of the oldest gauged watershed sites in the world.

Located in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, the 5,400-acre laboratory is made up of two adjacent, bowl-shaped basins covered with forest and containing several well-defined watersheds and over 45 miles of stream.

Coweeta scientists and partners continue to study the hydrologic cycle, but over the years their focus has expanded to include all components of the watershed ecosystem. The Coweeta basin serves as a living laboratory, where teams of scientists from many disciplines and locations study interactions among water, trees, soils, vegetation, and other organisms.

For over 75 years, the laboratory has provided scientists the opportunity to measure and record data on rainfall, evaporation, and streamflow. Using these data, Coweeta scientists have described the cycle and quality of water in an undisturbed forest, and studied the impacts of disturbances on water, nutrient, and organic matter cycles. Disturbances can come from nature itself—as insect infestations, tree diseases, droughts, or hurricanes—but they are more often the result of human activities. Climate change, air pollution, timber harvests, recreation, and development are examples.

Gauge house for one of the 32 weirs installed on Coweeta streams in the 1930s. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Forest scientists study the effect such disturbances have on the quantity, quality, and timing of water flow and on the associated components of the watershed ecosystem. Understanding the complex interconnections within watershed ecosystems requires skills from many areas of expertise.

Research at Coweeta ranges from molecular-level studies on genetic variability to large-scale analyses of land use change in the Southern Appalachian region. The current research program encompasses a broad array of cooperative studies, with an average of 30 projects a year involving approximately 50 senior investigators from universities and institutions from all over the world.

Over the past eight decades, the Coweeta research team has produced more than 2,000 research papers that have helped establish the foundation of knowledge required for the science-based management of natural resources.

The Coweeta LTER Program

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program is a national network of 26 field research sites where more than 2000 scientists work cooperatively and across disciplines on long-term environmental research. Established in 1980 as one of six original LTER sites, the Coweeta LTER program is the centerpiece of long-term cooperation between the University of Georgia and the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory.

Since 1980, the program has evolved from a site-based to a region-based project. While much of the research is still focused on the Coweeta basin, research objectives have expanded to advance the scientific understanding of the spatial, temporal, and decision-making components behind the land use changes that have taken place in the Southern Appalachian region over the last 200 years—and to forecast patterns of change 30 years into the future.

For more information, email Chelcy Miniat at cfminiat@fs.fed.us

The Southern Research Station is currently evaluating the role of our existing experimental forests in providing data and answers to the critical forest management questions identified in assessments such as the Southern Forest Futures Project, towards developing a functional experimental forest network that would also address the needs of our partners and publics. For more information, please visit: http://forests4thefuture.info/research/experimental-forest-network-re-design. 

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

 

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