Assessing Vegetation Structure and Dynamics in a Chihuahuan Grassland-Shrubland Ecotone Using the Relationship Between Remote-Sensed Vegetation Phenology and Precipitation

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Mariano Moreno de las Heras, University of Durham, Durham, DH1, United Kingdom, Ruben Diaz-Sierra, Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED), Madrid, Spain, Laura Turnbull, Durham University, Geography, Durham, United Kingdom and John Wainwright, University of Durham, Durham, United Kingdom
Land degradation usually involves largely irreversible vegetation changes in drylands. A typical case of vegetation change is the shrub-encroachment process that has been taking place over the last 150 years in the Chihuahuan Desert, where large areas of grasslands dominated by perennial grass species (black and blue grama) have transitioned to shrublands dominated by woody species (mainly creosotebush and mesquite), accompanied by accelerated water and wind erosion. An array of mechanisms are involved in this process, including external triggering factors such as precipitation variations and land-use change, and endogenous amplifying mechanisms brought about by soil erosion-vegetation feedbacks. We analyze the structure and dynamics of vegetation at an 18-km2 grassland-shrubland ecotone in the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert (McKenzie Flats, Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico) by investigating the relationship between decade-scale (2000-13) records of medium-resolution remote sensing of vegetation phenology (MODIS NDVI) and precipitation. Our analysis indicates that spatial variations in the NDVI-rainfall relationship reflect functional differences in leaf phenology and water use for herbaceous and shrub vegetation. Herbaceous vegetation shows quick growth pulses associated with short-term (previous 2 months) precipitation, while shrubs show a slow response to medium-term (previous 5 months) precipitation. We use these relationships to (a) determine the broad-scale spatial distribution of dominant vegetation types, and to (b) decompose the NDVI signal into partial net primary production (NPP) components for herbaceous vegetation and shrubs across the study site. We further analyze the influence of inter-annual variations in seasonal precipitation on remotely sensed NPP. Plant growth for herbaceous vegetation is particularly synchronized with monsoonal summer rainfall. For shrubs, annual NPP is better explained by winter plus summer precipitation, overlapping the monsoonal period of rain concentration. Our results suggest that changes in precipitation pattern comprising reductions in monsoonal summer rainfall and/or increases in winter precipitation may enhance the shrub-encroachment process in desert grasslands of the American Southwest.