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Geologic, geomorphic, and edaphic underpinnings of dryland ecosystems: Colorado Plateau landscapes in a changing world

November 8, 2022

Drylands represent more than 41% of the global land surface and are at degradation risk due to land use and climate change. Developing strategies to mitigate degradation and restore drylands in the face of these threats requires an understanding of how drylands are shaped by not only soils and climate, but also geology and geomorphology. However, few studies have completed such a comprehensive analysis that relates spatial variation in plant communities to all aspects of the geologic–geomorphic–edaphic–plant–climate system. The focus of this study is the Colorado Plateau, a high-elevation dryland in the southwestern United States, which is particularly sensitive to future change due to climate vulnerability and increasing land-use pressure. Here, we examined 135 long-term vegetation-monitoring sites in three national parks and characterized connections between geology, geomorphology, soils, climate, and dryland plant communities. To first understand the geologic and geomorphic influences on soil formation and characteristics, we explore associations between soil pedons, bedrock geology, and geomorphology. Then, we characterize principal axes of variation in plant communities and ascertain controls and linkages between components of the edaphic–geomorphic system and plant community ordinations. Geologic and geomorphic substrate exerted controls on important properties of the soil profile, particularly depth, water-holding capacity, rockiness, salinity, and fine sands. Ordination identified five distinct plant communities and three primary axes of variation, representing gradients of woody- to herbaceous-dominated communities (Axis 1), saline scrublands to C3 grasslands (Axis 2), and annual to perennial communities (Axis 3). Geology, geomorphology, and soil explained a large proportion of variation in Axis 1 (74%), while climate variables largely explained Axis 2 (68%), and Axis 3 was not well explained by the random forest models. The variables identified as most influential to each axis were, respectively: (1) soil depth; (2) aridity, lithology, and soil salinity; and (3) temperature and precipitation. We posit that Axis 3 represents a land degradation gradient due to historic grazing, likely exacerbated by dry conditions. Results provide a novel framework that links the geologic and geomorphic evolution of landscapes, with the distribution of soils and plant communities that can guide ecosystem management, exemplifying an approach applicable to drylands globally.

Publication Year 2022
Title Geologic, geomorphic, and edaphic underpinnings of dryland ecosystems: Colorado Plateau landscapes in a changing world
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4273
Authors Michael C. Duniway, Christopher Benson, Travis W. Nauman, Anna C Knight, John B. Bradford, Seth M. Munson, Dana L. Witwicki, Carolyn Livensperger, Matthew W. Van Scoyoc, Terry T Fisk, David Thoma, Mark E. Miller
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70238960
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center