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We focus on headwater streams originating in the mountainous terrain of northern temperate rain forests. These streams rapidly descend from gradients greater than 20% to less than 5% in U-shaped glacial valleys. We use a set of studies on headwater streams in southeast Alaska to define headwater stream catchments, link physical and biological processes, and describe their significance within watersheds. We separate headwater stream systems into four units that have distinct hydrologic and geomorphic processes that link terrestrial processes to aquatic systems. Headwater streams collect, process, and transport material downstream. Physical and biological processes in headwater streams are complex and closely tied to terrestrial processes. Steps and step pools formed by large wood are keystone structures that link physical processes to biological processes and increase channel complexity. Large and coarse wood debris dams form in-channel step structures and act as valves that regulate the downstream flow of material. A large amount of inorganic and organic sediment is stored in step structures, which may be biological hotspots in headwater streams. Step pools formed by large woody debris are critical habitat for Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma), juvenile coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), steelhead (O. mykiss), and cutthroat trout (O. clarkii) in reaches with gradients from less than 4% to those greater than 10%. Landslides and debris flows are the dominant channel-altering processes in headwater streams and remove the step profile. Management activities that increase the number and frequency of channel disturbance events in headwater streams can have important and long-term consequences throughout a watershed.
Forest Science is a peer-reviewed journal publishing fundamental and applied research that explores all aspects of natural and social sciences as they apply to the function and management of the forested ecosystems of the world. Topics include silviculture, forest management, biometrics, economics, entomology & pathology, fire & fuels management, forest ecology, genetics & tree improvement, geospatial technologies, harvesting & utilization, landscape ecology, operations research, forest policy, physiology, recreation, social sciences, soils & hydrology, and wildlife management.