The response of arid soil communities to climate change: Chapter 8

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Arid and semiarid ecosystems cover approximately 40% of Earth’s terrestrial surface and are present on each of the planet’s continents [1]. Drylands are characterized by their aridity, but there is substantial geographic, edaphic, and climatic variability among these vast ecosystems, and these differences underscore substantial variation in dryland soil microbial communities, as well as in the future climates predicted among arid and semiarid systems globally. Furthermore, arid ecosystems are commonly patchy at a variety of spatial scales [2,3]. Vascular plants are widely interspersed in drylands and bare soil, or soil that is covered with biological soil crusts, fill these spaces. The variability acts to further enhance spatial heterogeneity, as these different zones within dryland ecosystems differ in characteristics such as water retention, albedo, and nutrient cycling [4–6]. Importantly, the various soil patches of an arid landscape may be differentially sensitive to climate change. Soil communities are only active when enough moisture is available, and drylands show large spatial variability in soil moisture, with potentially long dry periods followed by pulses of moisture. The pulse dynamics associated with this wetting and drying affect the composition, structure, and function of dryland soil communities, and integrate biotic and abiotic processes via pulse-driven exchanges, interactions, transitions, and transfers. Climate change will likely alter the size, frequency, and intensity of future precipitation pulses, as well as influence non-rainfall sources of soil moisture, and aridland ecosystems are known to be highly sensitive to such climate variability. Despite great heterogeneity, arid ecosystems are united by a key parameter: a limitation in water availability. This characteristic may help to uncover unifying aspects of dryland soil responses to global change.

The dryness of an ecosystem can be described by its aridity index (AI). Several AIs have been proposed, but the most widely used metrics determine the difference between average precipitation and potential evapotranspiration, where evapotranspiration is the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration, both of which move water from the ecosystem to the atmosphere [7–9]. Because evapotranspiration can be affected by various environmental factors such as temperature and incident radiation (Fig. 10.1), regions that receive the same average precipitation may have significantly different AI values [10,11]. Multiple studies have documented that mean annual precipitation, and thus AI, is highly correlated with biological diversity and net primary productivity [12–15]. Accordingly, AI is considered to be a central regulator of the diversity, structure, and productivity of an ecosystem, playing an especially influential role in arid ecosystems. Thus, the climate parameters that drive alterations in the AI of a region are likely to play an disproportionate role in shaping the response of arid soil communities to a changing climate. In this chapter we consider climate parameters that have been shown to be altered through climate change, with a focus on how these parameters are likely to affect dryland soil communities, including microorganisms and invertebrates. In particular, our goal is to highlight dryland soil community structure and function in the context of climate change, and we will focus on community relationships with increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations (a primary driver of climate change), temperature, and sources of soil moisture.

Additional publication details

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title The response of arid soil communities to climate change: Chapter 8
DOI 10.1515/9783110419047-008
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher De Gruyter
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 20 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Title The biology of arid soils
First page 139
Last page 158