Soil water dynamics at 15 locations distributed across a desert landscape: insights from a 27-yr dataset

TitleSoil water dynamics at 15 locations distributed across a desert landscape: insights from a 27-yr dataset
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsDuni D, Petrie MD, Peters DC, Anderson JP, Crossland K., Herrick JE
Pagination36 pp
Date Published07/2018
Accession NumberJRN54904
ARIS Log Number354006
KeywordsChihuahuan Desert, coppice dunes, critical zone, deep recharge, desertification, ecohydrology, grassland, landscape context, neutron moisture meter, shrubland, soil water, Special Feature: Dynamic Deserts, vadose zone

Desert ecosystems are primarily limited by water availability. Within a climatic regime, topography, soil characteristics, and vegetation are expected to determine how the combined effects of precipitation, temperature, and evaporative demand of the atmosphere shape the spatial and temporal patterns of water within the soil profile and across a landscape. To forecast how desert landscapes may respond to future climatic conditions, it is imperative to improve our understanding of these ecohydrologic processes. Here, we report on 27 yr of monthly soil volumetric water content (VWC) measurements and associated soils data from a site in the northern Chihuahuan Desert of North America. The dataset includes VWC and soil properties measured to 3 m in depth across 15 locations that encompass a range of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation types. We use this unique dataset (1) to generate insights into general temporal and depth patterns in VWC, (2) to analyze how VWC corresponds to measures of climatic conditions, and (3) to qualitatively evaluate the relative importance of soils, topographic setting, and vegetation type in mediating temporal patterns in VWC. Analyses of this unique dataset emphasize the importance of soil and topographic setting in determining depth and temporal patterns in VWC across time. Results emphasize the episodic nature of deep wetting events in our study system—essentially limited to three large events over the 27-yr record driven primarily by wetter than normal winters. Comparison of soil water dynamics between mesquite shrub coppice dunes and interspace soils suggests the “island of fertility” concept does not extend to soil water. Median VWC was strongly coupled to climatic conditions over surprisingly long windows at most locations (6–18 months), suggesting that soil water at depth is decoupled from short climatic pulses. However, VWC dynamics and VWC–climate relationships varied among locations, depths, and seasons, with unexpected similarities in ecohydrologic dynamics observed among very different vegetation types (e.g., an eroded creosote shrubland and a playa grassland). These results further underscore the importance of ecohydrological investigations in these ecosystems, given forecasts for a warmer and more variable climate in deserts globally.