Stabilization of Desert Surfaces and Accumulation of Dust Under Biological Soil Crusts
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Biological soil crusts (BSC) are known to play a critical role in the stabilization of desert surfaces by helping to protect sediment from wind and water erosion and aiding in the trapping of airborne particles. The crusts are often composed of cyanobacteria, algae, and fungi, and occupy the upper few cm of a soil. Due to their high tolerance of desiccation and ability to utilize fog and dew sources, BSC are able to exist in environments that may otherwise be too dry for vascular plants. In the hyperarid Atacama Desert, decades or more between measurable precipitation events has created a landscape devoid of macroscopic life. While precipitation is rare, coastal fog occurs regularly and microbial communities capable of utilizing fog and dew water are able to persist. Here we found cyanobacteria and lichen living in association with a thin sulfate and dust crust (~2 cm) covering the surface of ‘dust plateaus’. Topographically the region is highly irregular and part of a largely erosional landscape. We hypothesized that these flat-topped plateaus are accretionary features that have been able to maintain dust accumulation for thousands of years as a result of the surface crusts. To test this hypothesis we conducted radiocarbon analysis of crusts and soil profiles at two sites approximately 30 km apart, one in a high fog zone and another in lower fog frequency zone. The radiocarbon analysis shows that sediment has been accumulating in the ‘plateaus’ for the past 15,000 years and that biological activity and rates of C cycling in the crust increase with increasing fog frequency and intensity. The ages of organic material in the dust decrease monotonically with decreasing soil thickness, suggestive of progressive upward growth by dust accumulation. Our data indicate that the BSC are capable of surviving in hyperarid the Atacama Desert, a Mars analogue, through the utilization of fog water, and that their presence can leave a visible geomorphic imprint on the landscape.