Vegetation Controls on Erosion, Soil Organic Carbon Pools, and Soil Nitrogen Pools in a Dryland Ecosystem
Drylands (arid and semi-arid grassland ecosystems) cover about 40% of the Earth's surface and support over 40% of the human population, most of which is in emerging economies. Human development of drylands leads to topsoil loss, and over the last 160 years, woody plants have encroached on drylands, both of which have implications for maintaining soil viability. Understanding the spatial variability in erosion and soil organic carbon and total nitrogen under varying geomorphic and biotic forcing in drylands is therefore of paramount importance. This study focuses on how two plants, palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla, nitrogen-fixing) and jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis, non-nitrogen fixing), affect sediment transport and soil organic carbon and total nitrogen pools in a dryland environment north of Phoenix, Arizona. Bulk samples were systematically collected from the top 10 cm of soil in twelve catenae to control for the existence and type of plants, location to canopy (sub- or intercanopy, up- or downslope), aspect, and distance from the divide. Samples were measured for soil organic carbon and total nitrogen and an unmanned aerial system-derived digital elevation map of the field site was created for spatial analysis. A subset of the samples was measured for the short-lived isotopes 137Cs and 210Pbex, which serve as proxy erosion rates. Erosional soils were found to have less organic carbon and total nitrogen than depositional soils. There were clear differences in the data between the two plant types: jojoba catenae had higher short-lived isotope activity, lower carbon and nitrogen, and smaller canopies than those of palo verde, suggesting lower erosion rates and nutrient contributions from jojoba plants. This research quantifies the importance of biota on influencing hillslope and soil dynamics in a semi-arid field site in central AZ and finishes with a discussion on the global implications for soil sustainability.