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Vegetation Patches and Runoff-Erosion as Interacting Ecohydrological Processes in Semiarid Landscapes

John A. Ludwig, Bradford P. Wilcox, David D. Breshears, David J. Tongway and Anton C. Imeson
Ecology
Vol. 86, No. 2 (Feb., 2005), pp. 288-297
Published by: Wiley
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3450947
Page Count: 10
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Vegetation Patches and Runoff-Erosion as Interacting Ecohydrological Processes in Semiarid Landscapes
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Abstract

Ecological and hydrological processes can interact strongly in landscapes, yet these processes are often studied separately. One particularly important interaction between these processes in patchy semiarid lands is how vegetation patches serve to obstruct runoff and then how this retained water increases patch growth that, in turn, provides feedbacks to the system. Such ecohydrological interactions have been mostly demonstrated for semiarid landscapes with distinctly banded vegetation patterns. In this paper, we use data from our studies and from the literature to evaluate how strongly four ecohydrological interactions apply across other patchy semiarid vegetations, and how these interactions are affected by disturbances. We specifically address four questions concerning ecohydrological interactions: (1) if vegetation patches obstruct runoff flows during rainfall events, how much more soil water is stored in these patches compared to open interpatch areas; (2) if inputs of water are higher in patches, how much stronger is the pulse of plant growth compared to interpatches; (3) if more soil water in patches promotes greater biological activity by organisms such as earthworms that create macropores, how much does this improve soil infiltrability; and (4) if vegetation patches are damaged on a hillslope, how much does this increase runoff and erosion and decrease biomass production? We used the trigger-transfer-reserve-pulse framework developed for Australian semiarid woodlands to put these four questions into a landscape context. For a variety of patchy semiarid vegetation types in Australia, Europe, and North America, we found that patches significantly stored more soil water, produced more growth and had better infiltrability than interpatches, and that runoff and erosion can markedly increase on disturbed hillslopes. However, these differences varied greatly and appeared to depend on factors such as the intensity and amount of input events (rainstorms) and type of topography, soils, and vegetation. Experimental and modeling studies are needed to better quantify how these factors specifically affect ecohydrological interactions. Our current findings do support the conclusion that vegetation patches and runoff-erosion processes do strongly interact in many semiarid landscapes across the globe, not just banded landscapes.

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