The southwestern U.S. is predicted to experience increasing temperatures and longer periods of inter-storm drought. High temperature and water deficit restrict plant productivity and ecosystem functioning, but the influence of future climate is predicted to be highly heterogeneous because of the complex terrain characteristic of much of the Critical Zone (CZ). Within our Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) in the Southwestern US, we monitor ecosystem-scale carbon and water fluxes using eddy covariance. This whole-ecosystem metric is a powerful integrating measure of ecosystem function over time, but details on spatial heterogeneity resulting from topographic features of the landscape are not captured, nor are interactions among below- and aboveground processes. We supplement eddy covariance monitoring with distributed measures of carbon flux from soil and vegetation across different aspects to quantify the causes and consequences of spatial heterogeneity through time.
Given that (i) aspect influences how incoming energy drives evaporative water loss and (ii) seasonality drives temporal patterns of soil moisture recharge, we were able to examine the influence of these processes on CO2 efflux by investigating variation across aspect. We found that aspect was a significant source of spatial heterogeneity in soil CO2 efflux, but the influence varied across seasonal periods. Snow on South-facing aspects melted earlier and yielded higher efflux rates in the spring. However, during summer, North- and South-facing aspects had similar amounts of soil moisture, but soil temperatures were warmer on the North-facing aspect, yielding greater rates of CO2 efflux. Interestingly, aspect did not influence photosynthetic rates. Taken together, we found that physical features of the landscape yielded predictable patterns of levels and phenologies of soil moisture and temperature, but these drivers differentially influenced below- and aboveground sources of carbon exchange. Conducting these spatially distributed measurements are time consuming. Looking forward, we have begun using unmanned aerial vehicles outfitted with thermal and multi-spectral cameras to quantify patterns of water flux, NDVI, needle browning due to moisture stress, and overall phenology in the CZ.
Barron-Gafford G., Minor R., Heard M., Sutter L., Yang J., Potts D. (2015): Complex terrain in the Critical Zone: How topography drives ecohydrological patterns of soil and plant carbon exchange in a semiarid mountainous system. Abstract H23J-01 presented at 2015 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 14-18 Dec..
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.