Understanding Structure and Function in Semiarid Ecosystems: Implications for Terrestrial Carbon Dynamics in Drylands
Cunliffe, Andrew Michael
Date: 27 May 2016
University of Exeter
PhD in Geography
This study advances understanding of how the changes in ecosystem structure and function associated with woody shrub encroachment in semi-arid grasslands alter ecosystem carbon (C) dynamics. In terms of both magnitude and dynamism, dryland ecosystems represent a major component of the global C cycle. Woody shrub encroachment is a ...
This study advances understanding of how the changes in ecosystem structure and function associated with woody shrub encroachment in semi-arid grasslands alter ecosystem carbon (C) dynamics. In terms of both magnitude and dynamism, dryland ecosystems represent a major component of the global C cycle. Woody shrub encroachment is a widespread phenomenon globally, which is known to substantially alter ecosystem structure and function, with resultant impacts on C dynamics. A series of focal sites were studied at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico, USA. A space-for-time analogue was used to identify how landscape structure and function change at four stages over a grassland to shrubland transition. The research had three key threads: 1. Soil-associated carbon: Stocks of organic and inorganic C in the near-surface soil, and the redistribution of these C stocks by erosion during high-intensity rainfall events were quantified using hillslope-scale monitoring plots. Coarse (>2 mm) clasts were found to account for a substantial proportion of the organic and inorganic C in these calcareous soils, and the erosional effluxes of both inorganic and organic C increased substantially across the vegetation ecotone. Eroded sediment was found to be significantly enriched in organic C relative to the contributing soil with systematic changes in OC enrichment across the vegetation transition. The OC enrichment dynamics observed were inconsistent with existing understanding (derived largely from reductionist, laboratory-based experiments) that OC enrichment is largely insignificant in the erosional redistribution of C. 2. Plant biomass: Cutting-edge proximal remote sensing approaches, using a remotely piloted lightweight multirotor drone combined with structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry were developed and used to quantify biomass carbon stocks at the focal field sites. In such spatially heterogeneous and temporally dynamic ecosystems existing measurement techniques (e.g. on-the-ground observations or satellite- or aircraft-based remote sensing) struggle to capture the complexity of fine-grained vegetation structure, which is crucial for accurately estimating biomass. The data products available from the novel SfM approach developed for this research quantified plants just 15 mm high, achieving a fidelity nearly two orders of magnitude finer than previous implementations of the method. The approach developed here will revolutionise the study of biomass dynamics in short-sward ecogeomorphic systems. 3. Ecohydrological modelling: Understanding the effects of water-mediated degradation processes on ecosystem carbon dynamics over greater than observable spatio-temporal scales is complicated by significant scale-dependencies and thus requires detailed mechanistic understanding. A process-based, spatially-explicit ecohydrological modelling approach (MAHLERAN - Model for Assessing Hillslope to Landscape Erosion, Runoff and Nutrients) was therefore comprehensively evaluated against a large assemblage of rainfall runoff events. This evaluation highlighted both areas of strength in the current model structure, and also areas of weakness for further development. The research has improved understanding of ecosystem degradation processes in semi-arid rangelands, and demonstrates that woody shrub encroachment may lead to a long-term reduction in ecosystem C storage, which is contrary to the widely promulgated view that woody shrub encroachment increases C storage in terrestrial ecosystems.
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