Aeolian processes are important drivers of ecosystem dynamics in drylands, and important feedbacks exist among aeolian – hydrological processes and vegetation. The trapping of wind-borne sediments by vegetation may result in changes in soil properties beneath the vegetation, which, in turn, can alter hydrological and biogeochemical processes. Despite the relevance of aeolian transport to ecosystem dynamics, the interactions between aeolian transport and vegetation in shaping dryland landscapes where sediment distribution is altered by relatively rapid changes in vegetation composition such as shrub encroachment, is not well understood. Here, we used a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling framework to investigate the sediment trapping efficiencies of vegetation canopies commonly found in a shrub-grass ecotone in the Chihuahuan Desert (New Mexico, USA) and related the results to spatial heterogeneity in soil texture and infiltration measured in the field. A CFD open-source software package was used to simulate aeolian sediment movement through three-dimensional architectural depictions of Creosote shrub (Larrea tridentata) and Black Grama grass (Bouteloua eriopoda) vegetation types. The vegetation structures were created using a computer-aided design software (Blender), with inherent canopy porosities, which were derived using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) measurements of plant canopies. Results show that considerable heterogeneity in infiltration and soil grain size distribution exist between the microsites, with higher infiltration and coarser soil texture under shrubs. Numerical simulations also indicate that the differential trapping of canopies might contribute to the observed heterogeneity in soil texture. In the early stages of encroachment, the shrub canopies, by trapping coarser particles more efficiently, might maintain higher infiltration rates leading to faster development of the microsites (among other factors) with enhanced ecological productivity, which might provide positive feedbacks to shrub encroachment.
Additional publication details
Ecohydrological implications of aeolian sediment trapping by sparse vegetation in drylands