Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Nutrient Limitation, Plant Biomass and Productivity, and Stream Metabolism Vary in Response to Short- and Long-Term Hydrological Regime Shifts

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Nancy B Grimm, John L Sabo, Xiaoli Dong and Albert Ruhí, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States
Climate and hydrology are strong drivers of ecosystem structure and function in arid landscapes. Arid regions are characterized by high interannual variation in precipitation, and these climate patterns drive the overall hydrologic disturbance regime (in terms of flooding and drying), which influences geomorphic structure, biotic distributions, and nutrient status of desert stream ecosystems. We analyzed the long-term pattern of discharge in a desert stream in Arizona to identify hydrologic regime shifts, i.e., abrupt transitions between sequences of floods and droughts at periods of months to decades. We used wavelet analysis to identify time intervals over a 50-year time series that were negatively correlated with one another, reflecting a shift from wet to dry phases. We also looked with finer resolution at the most recent 10-year period, when wetlands have come to dominate the ecosystem owing to a management change, and at individual flood and drought events within years.

In space, there is high site fidelity of wetland plant cover, corresponding to reliable water sources. Comparing five-year patterns of plant distribution and stream metabolism between wet and dry years suggested the primacy of geomorphic controls in drought periods. Nutrient limitation of algal production varied from moderate to very strong N limitation, with only one year when there was a (weak) suggestion of secondary P limitation. Over the longer period of record, we identified times characterized by hydrological regime shifts and asked whether ecosystem variables would have changed over that time period. We hypothesized, in particular, that the changes in nutrient status of the stream ecosystem would result from these regime shifts. We used our most complete long-term dataset on stream nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations and N:P ratios as a proxy for nutrient limitation. However, N:P varied primarily at fine scales in response to individual flood events.