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Spatial and temporal variability of plant-available water in calcium carbonate-cemented soils and consequences for arid ecosystem resilience

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Increased variability in precipitation, including frequency of drought, is predicted for many arid and semiarid regions of the world. The ability of soils to retain water can increase resilience by buffering vegetation communities against precipitation extremes. Little is known, however, about water retention by carbonate cemented soil horizons, which occur extensively in arid and semiarid ecosystems. It has been speculated that they may significantly modify vertical and temporal distribution of plant-available water (PAW). To investigate this hypothesis, PAW was monitored at three sites in a mixed shrub-grass community in southern New Mexico, USA, across soils with differing degrees of carbonate horizon development: no carbonate horizon, a partially cemented calcic horizon, and a continuously cemented petrocalcic horizon. Results are presented from three years that included extremely dry and wet periods. Calcic and petrocalcic horizons absorbed and retained significantly greater amounts of PAW for several months following an extremely wet winter and summer compared to the non-carbonate soil. Following a wet summer, petrocalcic horizons retained very high PAW (16 to 18% volumetric or ~72 to 80% of soil water holding capacity) through early spring of the following year, more than double the PAW retained by similar depths in the non-carbonate soil. Drying dynamics indicate calcic and petrocalcic horizons release stored water into the grass rooting zone during growing seasons following extreme events. Water dynamics of calcic and petrocalcic horizons during extreme events provide a mechanism to explain previous observations that perennial grasses exhibit greater resilience to drought when high carbonate horizons occur at shallow depths (< 50 cm). Water holding capacity of the entire profile, including rock-like material such as calcium carbonate, should be considered when evaluating the potential resilience of vegetation communities to disturbance, including the increased variability in precipitation expected to occur as a result of global climate change.
Michael Duniway , Jeff Herrick , H. Curtis Monger
arid soils , arid zones , carbonates , climate change , drought , ecosystems , grasses , growing season , rhizosphere , soil depth , soil horizons , soil water , soil water retention , spring , summer , temporal variation , vegetation , water distribution , water holding capacity , New Mexico
Oecologia 2010 v.163
Journal Articles, USDA Authors, Peer-Reviewed
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