Development of a stable isotope index to assess decadal-scale vegetation change and application to woodlands of the Burdekin catchment, Australia


Evelyn Krull, CSIRO Land and Water, PMB 2, Glen Osmond SA 5064, tel. +61 8 8303 8516, fax +61 8 8303 8550, e-mail:


Forty-four study sites were established in remnant woodland in the Burdekin River catchment in tropical north-east Queensland, Australia, to assess recent (decadal) vegetation change. The aim of this study was further to evaluate whether wide-scale vegetation ‘thickening’ (proliferation of woody plants in formerly more open woodlands) had occurred during the last century, coinciding with significant changes in land management. Soil samples from several depth intervals were size separated into different soil organic carbon (SOC) fractions, which differed from one another by chemical composition and turnover times. Tropical (C4) grasses dominate in the Burdekin catchment, and thus δ13C analyses of SOC fractions with different turnover times can be used to assess whether the relative proportion of trees (C3) and grasses (C4) had changed over time. However, a method was required to permit standardized assessment of the δ13C data for the individual sites within the 13 Mha catchment, which varied in soil and vegetation characteristics. Thus, an index was developed using data from three detailed study sites and global literature to standardize individual isotopic data from different soil depths and SOC fractions to reflect only the changed proportion of trees (C3) to grasses (C4) over decadal timescales. When applied to the 44 individual sites distributed throughout the Burdekin catchment, 64% of the sites were shown to have experienced decadal vegetation thickening, while 29% had remained stable and the remaining 7% had thinned. Thus, the development of this index enabled regional scale assessment and comparison of decadal vegetation patterns without having to rely on prior knowledge of vegetation changes or aerial photography.