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Shifts in plant functional types have time-dependent and regionally variable impacts on dryland ecosystem water balance

December 3, 2014


1. Terrestrial vegetation influences hydrologic cycling. In water-limited, dryland ecosystems, altered ecohydrology as a consequence of vegetation change can impact vegetation structure, ecological functioning and ecosystem services. Shrub steppe ecosystems dominated by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) are widespread across western North America, and provide a range of ecosystem services. While sagebrush abundance in these ecosystems has been altered over the past century, and changes are likely to continue, the ecohydrological consequences of sagebrush removal and reestablishment remain unclear.

2. To characterize the immediate and medium-term patterns of water cycling and availability following sagebrush plant community alteration, we applied the SOILWAT ecosystem water balance model to 898 sites across the distribution of sagebrush ecosystems, representing the three primary sagebrush ecosystem types: sagebrush shrublands, sagebrush steppe and montane sagebrush. At each site, we examined three vegetation conditions representing intact sagebrush, recently disturbed sagebrush and recovered but grass-dominated vegetation.

3. Transition from shrub to grass dominance decreased precipitation interception and transpiration and increased soil evaporation and deep drainage. Relative to intact sagebrush vegetation, simulated soils in the herbaceous vegetation phases typically had drier surface layers and wetter deep layers.

4. Our simulations suggested that alterations in ecosystem water balance may be most pronounced in vegetation representing recently disturbed conditions (herbaceous vegetation with low biomass) and only modest in conditions representing recovered, but still grass-dominated vegetation. Furthermore, the ecohydrological impact of simulated sagebrush removal depended on climate; while short-term changes in water balance were greatest in wet areas represented by the montane sagebrush ecosystem type, medium-term impacts were greatest in dry areas of sagebrush shrublands and sagebrush steppe.

5. Synthesis. This study provides a novel, regional-scale assessment of how plant functional type transitions may impact ecosystem water balance in sagebrush-dominated ecosystems of North America. Results illustrate that the ecohydrological consequences of changing vegetation depend strongly on climate and suggest that decreasing woody plant abundance may have only limited impact on evapotranspiration and water yield.

Publication Year 2014
Title Shifts in plant functional types have time-dependent and regionally variable impacts on dryland ecosystem water balance
DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.12289
Authors John B. Bradford, Daniel R. Schlaepfer, William K. Lauenroth, Ingrid C. Burke
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Ecology
Index ID 70134555
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center