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1 November 2007 Protocol for the Characterization of Carbon and Water Cycles in High-elevation Ecosystems of the Andes
Sandra Brown, Clara Roa, Cecilia Roa, Luz Dary Yepes
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The government of Colombia has taken a leadership role in facilitating research in high mountain ecosystems to provide a scientific base for understanding climate change and land use impacts on water and carbon cycles. With support from the World Bank and GEF, the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) has undertaken a national pilot project on integrated adaptation to climate change (INAP). A key component of this project has been the development of a protocol for the characterization of carbon and water cycles in high mountain ecosystems. The protocol is designed for use by government, university, and NGO partners interested in climate change impacts, with IDEAM leading the project and consolidating data and results. The present article provides an overview of the protocol design.

The protocol

High mountain ecosystems of the Andes, páramo, and Andean forests are potentially significant carbon sinks; together with glaciers they play an important role in regulating water flow. The Andes are unique in the number of large urban centers that are located above 2500 m, and these cities are dependent on mountain ecosystems for their water supplies. Tropical mountain regions of the Andean Cordillera have been identified as vulnerable to climate change (Büchler et al 2004). Anticipated impacts include higher temperatures and consequently greater evapotranspiration, an upward shift in the zero temperature gradient resulting in less snow relative to rainfall, glacial recession, and a vertical displacement of vegetation (Francou et al 2003; Vuille et al 2003; Hooghiemstra and van der Hammen 2004). Simultaneously, mountain headwater catchments are subject to anthropogenic impacts related to agricultural production, burning, wetland drainage, cattle grazing, and the clearing of forests and riparian vegetation (Hofstede 1995; Diaz and Paz 2002). The hydrologic implications of climate and land use change for the Andes potentially include a flashier runoff regime, less water storage capacity in wetlands, páramo, and glaciers, and less water availability in the dry season. Within Colombia the effects of climate change have already been documented; warming trends have been observed in minimum temperatures (Perez et al 1998), and the accelerated loss of ice cover of tropical glaciers is attributed to global temperature change (Ceballos et al 2006).

Management strategies for carbon and water require a scientific information base about the processes that affect the carbon and water cycles, their interactions, dynamics, variability, the practices that optimize storage, the effects of land use, vulnerability to perturbations, and potential implications for local communities. A protocol has been developed in Colombia as a tool to characterize carbon and water cycles in high-elevation Andean ecosystems and to facilitate comparative studies across the region. The protocol aims to establish a monitoring system to understand the impacts of climate change and land use on the capacity of these high mountain ecosystems to regulate water flow and to accumulate carbon.

The conceptual model

Evaluating the impacts of climate change and land use pressure on high-elevation ecosystems requires an understanding of the factors impacting the pools and flow paths of the carbon and water cycles. Carbon and water are stored in pools such as glaciers, wetlands, lakes, soils, and vegetation. Water and carbon pass from one pool to another through flow paths such as precipitation, decomposition, or evaporation. The protocol for the characterization of carbon and water cycles in high mountain ecosystems uses the concept of pools and flow paths to investigate the impacts of climate and land use on the various compartments and ultimately on carbon and water balances (CIAT 2006). Anthropogenic activities such as ploughing, burning, forest harvesting, and grazing modify the natural cycles through vegetation, introduced animals, and human consumption of water and biomass. Human influences are explicitly included within the protocol. The conceptual model is illustrated in Figure 1 for water in a páramo ecosystem.


Pools and flows of water in páramo with anthropogenic intervention.


Algorithm of the protocol

The protocol is organized in a series of blocks. Each block represents a flow of activities, analysis and decisions taken, and supporting documents to facilitate the application of the protocol. Norms and criteria, procedures, formats for data capture and instructions for the measurement of variables are associated with the blocks. The 7 blocks are:

  1. Introduction to the protocol;

  2. Selection of the sub-watershed and ecosystems to monitor;

  3. Selection of research questions;

  4. Collection of secondary data through a participatory process;

  5. Design of the monitoring network;

  6. Monitoring program;

  7. Systematization and analysis of information.

Criteria are decision making guides such as criteria for the selection of sub-watersheds or prioritization of monitoring variables. Instruction sheets provide detailed explanations and procedures for installation, operation and maintenance of equipment, and standard methods for analysis. Formats are provided for the collection and compilation of field and/or laboratory data. Norms relate to World Meteorological Organization (WMO) or other international standards relative to data collection and/or analysis (eg EUROFLUX).

Selection of the sub-watersheds and ecosystems to monitor

The selection of the sub-watershed and ecosystems to monitor aims to account for the relative importance of the high-elevation ecosystems, their variability, and logistics for the implementation of monitoring. The criteria selected for Colombia are given in Table 1.


Criteria for the selection of sub-watersheds and ecosystems to monitor.


Research questions

Research questions are defined based on the characteristics of the selected micro-watersheds for monitoring, comparison between ecosystems, and consideration of climate change and land use impacts. Potential research questions include:

  • Which pools within a non-intervened páramo ecosystem have the greatest capacity to hold water and regulate the water balance?

  • How large are the carbon pools within a non-intervened high Andean forest ecosystem and what are their C accumulation rates?

  • What are the impacts of human intervention on the ability of páramo ecosystems to hold water and regulate base flow?

  • What are the rates of deglaciation; the principal factors driving deglaciation; and the impact on downstream páramo ecosystems?

Participatory baseline

Relevant geographical, biophysical, and socioeconomic secondary data are compiled and evaluated for data quality through a participatory process. Interest groups are identified and engaged through the formation of a Learning Alliance (Penning de Vris 2007). Indicators are validated at the local level so that secondary data collection focuses only on data relevant to carbon and water cycles in the specific high mountain ecosystem under study. Geographical data of interest include base maps, land use and land cover maps, and existing imagery. Relevant biophysical data relate to climate, hydrology, water bodies and wetlands, water quality, glacial coverage and characteristics, vegetation inventories, and soil physical and chemical properties. Socioeconomic information of interest includes data on production systems, water use, and socioeconomic indicators such as education and land tenure. Responsibility for the collection of data is assigned to representatives of the interest groups, and existing data and metadata are compiled centrally and assessed for quality against international standards. Metadata variables to be assessed include the source of information, method of collection, sample size, scale, frequency of data collection, spatial coverage, and year(s) of data availability.

Design of the monitoring network

For each selected sub-watershed and the relevant research questions, the monitoring network is designed in accordance with criteria for the prioritization of variables and available resources (human and financial). For each pool and flow path of the water and carbon cycles specific to glaciers, páramo, and high-elevation Andean forests, a set of variables, required equipment, and methods of measurement are defined and prioritized. The ranking of variables is based on an index of: 1) contribution to or understanding of the pool or flow path, 2) complexity of measurement, and 3) cost of monitoring in terms of equipment and/or logistics. The monitoring network is then designed schematically considering existing equipment, priority variables for monitoring, and budget constraints. A series of “template” monitoring design drawings, criteria, and instruction sheets are provided as a guide for spatial and technical site selection.

The geographical/spatial monitoring design aims to provide high-resolution baseline imagery for inventory and temporal imagery to assess change in ecosystems and glaciers. The socioeconomic survey design identifies the basic socioeconomic information required for monitoring the carbon and water cycles and focuses on human intervention and adaptation. A draft questionnaire is provided which can be modified based on existing information and local validation. The principal sections of the survey include: family composition, land tenure, agricultural and agroforestry land use, livestock, farm management practices, on-farm forest cover, water sources, and water use.

Monitoring program

The monitoring program provides details for the installation of equipment and procedures for the collection of data corresponding to each selected variable. Key monitoring variables for water and carbon in páramo, high-elevation forest ecosystems, and glaciers are summarized in Table 2. For each biophysical variable, instruction sheets include information on equipment requirements, equipment installation (location and technical considerations), field measurements (site selection and technical considerations), maintenance and operation, results and analysis, equipment and laboratory costs, and norms.


Key monitoring variables for carbon and water cycles in páramo, high-elevation forests, and glaciers.


Geographical/spatial monitoring is designed to provide baseline inventories of glaciers, water, vegetation, land use, and to monitor change over time (1, 5–10 year intervals). The socioeconomic component focuses on the implementation of the questionnaire, analysis of land management relative to the monitored ecosystems, and the measurement of water consumption.

All monitored variables are specifically linked to pools or flow paths.


The systematization of data refers to the collection and transfer of information to a central database, and the analysis and synthesis of monitored variables to consolidate information at the project scale for the carbon and water cycles. Standard procedures for quality assurance and quality control are provided, including recommendations for station inspection, replicates, standard methods, and expected ranges. Instruction sheets are given for calculations for glacier mass and energy balances, water balance, estimation of the existing carbon pool, and C accumulation.

The protocol is currently being validated at two sites in the Colombian Cordillera. Further information on the protocol is available in Spanish at: or contact Luz Dary Yepes



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Sandra Brown, Clara Roa, Cecilia Roa, and Luz Dary Yepes "Protocol for the Characterization of Carbon and Water Cycles in High-elevation Ecosystems of the Andes," Mountain Research and Development 27(4), 372-375, (1 November 2007).
Published: 1 November 2007

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