Groundwater controls on vegetation composition and patterning in mountain meadows

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Abstract

[1] Mountain meadows are groundwater-dependent ecosystems that are hot spots of biodiversity and productivity. In the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, these ecosystems rely on shallow groundwater to support their vegetation communities during the dry summer growing season in the region's Mediterranean montane climate. Vegetation composition in this environment is influenced by both (1) oxygen stress that occurs when portions of the root zone are saturated and anaerobic conditions limit root respiration and (2) water stress that occurs when the water table drops and the root zone becomes water limited. A spatially distributed watershed model that explicitly accounts for snowmelt processes was linked to a fine-resolution groundwater flow model of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, California, to simulate water table dynamics. This linked hydrologic model was calibrated to observations from a well observation network for 2006–2009. A vegetation survey was also conducted at the site in which the three dominant species were identified at more than 200 plots distributed across the meadow. Nonparametric multiplicative regression was performed to create and select the best models for predicting vegetation dominance on the basis of the simulated hydrologic regime. The hydrologic niches of three vegetation types representing wet, moist, and dry meadow vegetation communities were found to be best described using both (1) a sum exceedance value calculated as the integral of water table position above a depth threshold of oxygen stress and (2) a sum exceedance value calculated as the integral of water table position below a depth threshold of water stress. This linked hydrologic and vegetative modeling framework advances our ability to predict the propagation of human-induced climatic and land use or land cover changes through the hydrologic system to the ecosystem. The hydroecologic functioning of meadows provides an example of the extent to which cascading hydrologic processes at watershed, hillslope, and riparian zones and within channels are reflected in the composition and distribution of riparian vegetation.

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