Modifying connectivity to promote state change reversal: the importance of geomorphic context and plant–soil feedbacks

TitleModifying connectivity to promote state change reversal: the importance of geomorphic context and plant–soil feedbacks
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsPeters DC, Okin GS, Herrick JE, Savoy H, Anderson JP, Scroggs SLP, Zhang J.
Date Published4/16/2020
ARIS Log Number369974
Keywordsaeolian processes, alternative states, cusp-catastrophe model, desertification, ecohydrology, long-term studies, regime shifts remediation

Alternative states maintained by feedbacks are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Although positive interactions that modify soil conditions may have the greatest potential to alter self-reinforcing feedbacks, the conditions leading to these state change reversals have not been resolved. In a 9-yr study, we modified horizontal connectivity of resources by wind or water on different geomorphic surfaces in an attempt to alter plant–soil feedbacks and shift woody-plant-dominated states back toward perennial grass dominance. Modifying connectivity resulted in an increase in litter cover regardless of the vector of transport (wind, water) followed by an increase in perennial grass cover 2 yr later. Modifying connectivity was most effective on sandy soils where wind is the dominant vector, and least effective on gravelly soils on stable surfaces with low sediment movement by water. We found that grass cover was related to precipitation in the first 5 yr of our study, and plant–soil feedbacks developed following 6 yr of modified connectivity to overwhelm effects of precipitation on sandy, wind-blown soils. These feedbacks persisted through time under variable annual rainfall. On alluvial soils, either plant–soil feedbacks developed after 7 yr that were not persistent (active soils) or did not develop (stable soils). This novel approach has application to drylands globally where desertified lands have suffered losses in ecosystem services, and to other ecosystems where connectivity-mediated feedbacks modified at fine scales can be expected to impact plant recovery and state change reversals at larger scales, in particular for wind-impacted sites.