Using an ecohydrology model to explore the role of biological soil crusts on soil hydrologic conditions at the Canyonlands Research Station, Utah
Biological soil crusts (BSCs) dominate the soil surface of drylands in the western United States and possess properties thought to influence local hydrology. Little agreement exists, however, on the effects of BSCs on runoff, infiltration, and evaporative rates. This study aims to improve the predictive capability of an ecohydrology model in order to understand how BSCs affect the storage, retention, and infiltration of water into soils characteristic of the Colorado Plateau. A set of soil moisture measurements obtained at a climate manipulation experiment near Moab, Utah, are used for model development and testing. Over five years, different rainfall treatments over experimental plots resulted in the development of BSC cover with different properties that influence soil moisture differently. This study used numerical simulations to isolate the relative roles of different BSC properties on the hydrologic response at the plot-scale. On-site meteorological, soil texture and vegetation property datasets are utilized as inputs into a ecohydrology model, modified to include local processes: (1) temperature-dependent precipitation partitioning, snow accumulation and melt, (2) seasonally-variable potential evapotranspiration, (3) plant species-specific transpiration factors, and (4) a new module to account for the water balance of the BSC. Soil, BSC and vegetation parameters were determined from field measurements or through model calibration to the soil moisture observations using the Shuffled Complex Evolution algorithm. Model performance is assessed against five years of soil moisture measurements at each experimental site, representing a wide range of crust cover properties. Simulation experiments were then carried out using the calibrated ecohydrology model in which BSC parameters were varied according to the level of development of the BSC, as represented by the BSC roughness. These results indicate that BSCs act to both buffer against evaporative soil moisture losses by enhancing BSC moisture evaporation and significantly alter the rates of soil water infiltration by reducing moisture storage and increasing conductivity in the BSC. The simulation results for soil water infiltration, storage and retention across a wide range of meteorological events help explain the conflicting hydrologic outcomes present in the literature on BSCs. In addition, identifying how BSCs mediate infiltration and evaporation processes has implications for dryland ecosystem function in the western United States.