Climate Dynamics

, Volume 37, Issue 1–2, pp 253–278 | Cite as

A simple hydrologic framework for simulating wetlands in climate and earth system models

  • Ying FanEmail author
  • Gonzalo Miguez-Macho


Wetlands are ecosystems of important functions in the earth’s climate system. Through relatively high evapotranspiration, they affect surface water and energy exchange with the atmosphere directly influencing the physical climate. Through CH4, CO2 and N2O fluxes, they regulate the biogeochemical cycles, indirectly influencing the physical climate. However, current models do not explicitly include the water table, present under all large and stable wetlands; model wetlands are identified as flat land with wet soil resulting from precipitation events. That is, the wetlands are only ‘wetted’ from above but not from below by the high water table. Furthermore, without the knowledge of the water table position, estimates of CH4 and other gases (e.g., CO2 and N2O) are poorly constrained. We present a simple hydrologic framework for simulating wetlands based on water table depth. A synthesis of hydrologic controls on wetlands highlights the key role that groundwater plays. It directly feeds wetlands, supports surface-water fed wetlands by maintaining a saturated substrate, and links land drainage to sea level by impeding drainage in lowlands. Forced by routine climate model output (precipitation–evapotranspiration-surface runoff), land topography, and sea level, we simulate the present-day water table in North America at the 1 km scale. We validate the simulation with water table observations and compare regions of shallow water table to mapped wetlands. Our results show that the framework captures the salient features of wetland distribution and extent at regional and continental scales, a direct result of large-scale groundwater convergence that nourishes the lowlands even in arid climates. The low requirement of forcing and computation make the framework easy to adopt in climate and earth system models for simulating wetland responses to climate and sea level change for the present, paleo reconstructions, and future projections.


Wetlands Water table Climate modeling Earth system modeling North America 



This work is supported by the US National Science Foundation, Ramón y Cajal program of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, Rutgers University Academic Excellence Fund, and the supercomputer center (Centro de Supercomputación de Galicia, CESGA) at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. We thank the following colleagues for assisting us in obtaining water table observations from provincial government archives: In Canada, Azina Kanji and Carole Holt Oduro at Alberta Environment; Kei Lo at Saskatchewan Watershed Authority; Bob Betcher and Janie Ulrich at the Manitoba Water Stewardship; Dajana Grgic and Christina Girjoaba at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment; Fern Schultz, Celine Davis, and Lindsey MacFarlane at British Columbia Ministry of the Environment; In the US, the scientists and staff at the US Geological Survey for nearly a century of systematic monitoring of the nation’s water resources and for maintaining a state-of-art national database. The above individuals answered numerous emails from us and have gone out of their ways to assemble the complete observations for us (location, well depth, aquifer type, well history, human influence, and water table time series). The efforts of those individuals who have collected data in the fields over decades made the work possible. Finally, we express our sincere thanks to the editor and anonymous reviewers who have raised constructive criticisms which significantly improved the manuscript.

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© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth and Planetary SciencesRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA
  2. 2.Non-Linear Physics GroupUniversidade de Santiago de CompostelaGaliciaSpain

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