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Ecohydrology of dry regions: storage versus pulse soil water dynamics

December 1, 2014

Although arid and semiarid regions are defined by low precipitation, the seasonal timing of temperature and precipitation can influence net primary production and plant functional type composition. The importance of precipitation seasonality is evident in semiarid areas of the western U.S., which comprise the Intermountain (IM) zone, a region that receives important winter precipitation and is dominated by woody plants and the Great Plains (GP), a region that receives primarily summer precipitation and is dominated by perennial grasses. Although these general relationships are well recognized, specific differences in water cycling between these regions have not been well characterized. We used a daily time step soil water simulation model and twenty sites from each region to analyze differences in soil water dynamics and ecosystem water balance. IM soil water patterns are characterized by storage of water during fall, winter, and spring resulting in relatively reliable available water during spring and early summer, particularly in deep soil layers. By contrast, GP soil water patterns are driven by pulse precipitation events during the warm season, resulting in fluctuating water availability in all soil layers. These contrasting patterns of soil water—storage versus pulse dynamics—explain important differences between the two regions. Notably, the storage dynamics of the IN sites increases water availability in deep soil layers, favoring the deeper rooted woody plants in that region, whereas the pulse dynamics of the Great Plains sites provide water primarily in surface layers, favoring the shallow-rooted grasses in that region. In addition, because water received when plants are either not active or only partially so is more vulnerable to evaporation and sublimation than water delivered during the growing season, IM ecosystems use a smaller fraction of precipitation for transpiration (47%) than GP ecosystems (49%). Recognizing the pulse-storage dichotomy in soil water regimes between the IM and GP regions may be useful for understanding the potential influence of climate changes on soil water patterns and resulting dominant plant functional groups in both regions.

Publication Year 2014
Title Ecohydrology of dry regions: storage versus pulse soil water dynamics
DOI 10.1007/s10021-014-9808-y
Authors William K. Lauenroth, Daniel R. Schlaepfer, John B. Bradford
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosystems
Index ID 70147001
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center