Pattern and structure of microtopography implies autogenic origins in forested wetlands

Diamond, Jacob S.; McLaughlin, Daniel L.; Slesak, Robert A.; Stovall, Atticus

Wetland microtopography is a visually striking feature, but also critically influences biogeochemical processes at both the scale of its observation (10−2–102 m2) and at aggregate scales (102–104 m2). However, relatively little is known about how wetland microtopography develops or the factors influencing its structure and pattern. Growing research across different ecosystems suggests that reinforcing processes may be common between plants and their environment, resulting in self-organized patch features, like hummocks. Here, we used landscape ecology metrics and diagnostics to evaluate the plausibility of plant–environment feedback mechanisms in the maintenance of wetland microtopography. We used terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) to quantify the sizing and spatial distribution of hummocks in 10 black ash (Fraxinus nigra Marshall) wetlands in northern Minnesota, USA. We observed clear elevation bimodality in our wettest sites, indicating microsite divergence into two states: elevated hummocks and low elevation hollows. We coupled the TLS dataset to a 3-year water level record and soil-depth measurements, and showed that hummock height (mean =0.31±0.06 m) variability is largely predicted by mean water level depth (R2=0.8 at the site scale, R2=0.12–0.56 at the hummock scale), with little influence of subsurface microtopography on surface microtopography. Hummocks at wetter sites exhibited regular spatial patterning (i.e., regular spacing of ca. 1.5 m, 25 %–30 % further apart than expected by chance) in contrast to the more random spatial arrangements of hummocks at drier sites. Hummock size distributions (perimeters, areas, and volumes) were lognormal, with a characteristic patch area of approximately 1 m2 across sites. Hummocks increase the effective soil surface area for redox gradients and exchange interfaces in black ash wetlands by up to 32 %, and influence surface water dynamics through modulation of specific yield by up to 30 %. Taken together, the data support the hypothesis that vegetation develops and maintains hummocks in response to anaerobic stresses from saturated soils, with a potential for a microtopographic signature of life.

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Diamond, Jacob S. / McLaughlin, Daniel L. / Slesak, Robert A. / et al: Pattern and structure of microtopography implies autogenic origins in forested wetlands. 2019. Copernicus Publications.

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