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Climatic Control of Vegetation Distribution: The Role of the Water Balance

Nathan L. Stephenson
The American Naturalist
Vol. 135, No. 5 (May, 1990), pp. 649-670
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2462028
Page Count: 22
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Climatic Control of Vegetation Distribution: The Role of the Water Balance
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Abstract

The water balance describes climate as it is sensed by plants, as the interaction of energy and water in the environment. Discriminant analysis showed that the distribution of North American plant formations was more highly correlated with the water balance (actual evapotranspiration and deficit) than with the more traditional measures of climate (such as temperature and precipitation) used in several studies, including those used in the well-known works of Thornthwaite, Holdridge, and Whittaker. Much of the improved correlation could be attributed to the ability of the water balance to distinguish between climates similar in mean annual energy and water supplies but different in the seasonal timing of the two. Consideration of the water balance aided in the interpretation of possible mechanisms controlling the distribution of plant formations. For example, coniferous forest occurred at low actual evapotranspiration (low simultaneous availability of energy and water), consistent with the suggestion that conifers are better adapted than deciduous trees to environments with a low potential for primary production. A better understanding of the mechanisms by which climate controls vegetation distribution will help us predict the effects of changing climate on the future distribution of vegetation types.

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