Root distributions predict shrub–steppe responses to precipitation intensity

Kulmatiski, Andrew; Holdrege, Martin C.; Chirvasă, Cristina; Beard, Karen H.

Precipitation events are becoming more intense around the world, changing the way water moves through soils and plants. Plant rooting strategies that sustain water uptake under these conditions are likely to become more abundant (e.g., shrub encroachment). Yet, it remains difficult to predict species responses to climate change because we typically do not know where active roots are located or how much water they absorb. Here, we applied a water tracer experiment to describe forb, grass, and shrub root distributions. These measurements were made in 8 inline-formulam by 8 inline-formulam field shelters with low or high precipitation intensity. We used tracer uptake data in a soil water flow model to estimate how much water respective plant root tissues absorb over time. In low-precipitation-intensity plots, deep shrub roots were estimated to absorb the most water (93 inline-formulamm yr−1) and shrubs had the greatest aboveground cover (27 %). Grass root distributions were estimated to absorb an intermediate amount of water (80 inline-formulamm yr−1) and grasses had intermediate aboveground cover (18 %). Forb root distributions were estimated to absorb the least water (79 inline-formulamm yr−1) and had the least aboveground cover (12 %). In high-precipitation-intensity plots, shrub and forb root distributions changed in ways that increased their water uptake relative to grasses, predicting the increased aboveground growth of shrubs and forbs in these plots. In short, water uptake caused by different rooting distributions predicted plant aboveground cover. Our results suggest that detailed descriptions of active plant root distributions can predict plant growth responses to climate change in arid and semi-arid ecosystems.

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Kulmatiski, Andrew / Holdrege, Martin C. / Chirvasă, Cristina / et al: Root distributions predict shrub–steppe responses to precipitation intensity. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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