The land-cover cascade: Relationships coupling land and water

C. L. Burcher, H. M. Valett, E. F. Benfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


We introduce the land-cover cascade (LCC) as a conceptual framework to quantify the transfer of land-cover-disturbance effects to stream biota. We hypothesize that disturbance is propagated through multivariate systems through key variables that transform a disturbance and pass a reorganized disturbance effect to the next hierarchical level where the process repeats until ultimately affecting biota. We measured 31 hydrologic, geomorphic, erosional, and substrate variables and 26 biotic responses that have been associated with landuse disturbance in third- and fourth-order streams in the Blue Ridge physiographic province in western North Carolina (USA). Regression analyses reduced this set of variables to include only those that responded to land cover and/or affected biota. From this reduced variable set, hypotheses were generated that predicted the disturbance pathways affecting each biotic response following the land-cover-cascade design. Cascade pathways began with land cover and ended with biotic responses, passing through at least one intermediate ecosystem abiotic component. Cascade models were tested for predictive ability and goodness-of-fit using path analysis. Biota were influenced by near-stream urban, agricultural, and forest land cover as propagated by hydrologic (e.g., discharge), geomorphic (e.g., stream bank height), erosional (e.g., suspended sediments), and depositional streambed (e.g., substrate size) features occurring along LCC pathways, reflecting abiotic mechanisms mediating land-cover disturbance. Our results suggest that communities are influenced by land-cover change indirectly through a hierarchy of associated abiotic components that propagate disturbance to biota. More generally, the land-cover cascade concept and experimental framework demonstrate an organized approach to the generic study of cascades and the complex relationships between landscapes and streams.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228-242
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007


  • Disturbance
  • GIS
  • Geomorphology
  • Hydrology
  • Land-cover cascade
  • Sediment
  • Watershed


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