Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences

Sediment capture by vegetation patches: Implications for desertification and increased resource redistribution

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Abstract

[1] Desertification impacts a large proportion of drylands and can be driven by a variety of climate and land use factors. Most conceptual models of desertification include the underlying assumption that when herbaceous cover is reduced, increased erosion from bare patches is redistributed to shrub canopy patches, resulting in self-reinforcing “islands of fertility.” Notably, however, this underlying assumption has not been explicitly tested with direct field measurements. Here we provide direct measurements of horizontal sediment flux moving into and out of bare-, herbaceous-, and shrub-dominated patch types in a semiarid ecosystem for both simulated and natural dust events, as well as in response to simulated disturbance. Horizontal sediment flux out of the bare patches was ∼20% greater than the herbaceous patches and ∼50% greater than sediment flux out of the shrub-dominated patches. Differences among vegetation patch types indicate that shrub patches capture more sediment than herbaceous patches and, importantly, that bare patches serve as amplified sediment sources following disturbance. Our results provide explicit support for the pervasive but untested desertification redistribution assumption, highlighting that loss of grass cover is a compounding problem that not only increases dust emissions but also precludes capture, and may have global relevance for coupled human-environmental systems at risk due to current or potential desertification.

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