Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Ecologically relevant moisture and temperature metrics for assessing dryland ecosystem dynamics

November 11, 2022

In drylands, water-limited regions that cover ~40% of the global land surface, ecosystems are primarily controlled by access to soil moisture and exposure to simultaneously hot and dry conditions. Quantifying ecologically relevant environmental metrics is difficult in drylands because the response of vegetation to moisture and temperature conditions is not easily explained solely by climate-based metrics. To address this knowledge gap, we developed and examined 27 climate and ecological drought metrics across dryland areas of the western U.S. Included in the 27 metrics is a suite of 19 largely new “ecological drought metrics” that are designed to quantify multiple aspects of environmental limitation in drylands, including overall growing conditions, seasonal fluctuations, seasonal moisture timing, exposure to extreme drought, and recruitment potential for perennial plants. To quantify these metrics, we simulated water balance pools and fluxes of daily soil moisture at multiple depths with historical weather from 1970-2010 using the SOILWAT2 ecosystem water balance model. We assessed the relationships among these metrics and their spatial and temporal patterns. We found that the inclusion of ecological drought metrics substantially increased the dimensionality of the climate metrics dataset; the number of independent variables needed to explain 90% of the variance in the dataset increased with the addition of ecological drought metrics. Spatial patterns in overall growing conditions represented well-known differences among ecoregions, for example high temperatures and low precipitation in the southwest and cool temperatures and greater precipitation in the northeast. Seasonal fluctuation in soil water availability (SWA) was greatest in the southwest (Mojave Desert) while fluctuation in climatic water deficit (CWD) was greatest in the northwest (northern Great Basin and Columbia Plateau). Seasonal timing of moisture also differed among metrics; the timing of wet degree days (WDD), SWA and CWD were only weakly related to seasonal timing of precipitation. Plant recruitment metrics varied strongly across western drylands. In the Great Plains, recruitment events occurred more frequently and lasted longer than in the intermountain regions, where recruitment events were comparatively rare and short. These ecological drought metrics provide new insight into patterns of soil moisture and temperature that shape the structure and function of dryland ecosystems. The metrics will be useful for assessing the potential impact of climate change on dryland ecosystems and developing adaptive resource management strategies to sustain dryland ecosystem services in a changing world.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Ecologically relevant moisture and temperature metrics for assessing dryland ecosystem dynamics
DOI 10.1002/eco.2509
Authors D.A. Chenoweth, Daniel Rodolphe Schlaepfer, J.C. Chambers, J.L. Brown, A.K. Urza, Brice Hanberry, D. Board, M. Crist, John Bradford
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecohydrology
Index ID 70238554
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center

Related Content