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Patch Configuration Non-linearly Affects Sediment Loss across Scales in a Grazed Catchment in North-east Australia

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A principle of the cross-scale interaction (CSI) framework is that disturbance-induced landscape changes resulting in coarser-grained spatial structure may non-linearly amplify transfer processes across scales. We studied suspended sediment losses at two spatial scales (0.24 m2 plots and ca. 0.25 ha hillslopes of about 140 m in length) in a semiarid savanna landscape to determine whether the spatial structure of grassy and bare soil areas introduced a non-linear amplification of sediment loss. Sediment loss rates from 0.24 m2 bare plots averaged 1.527 t ha−1 y−1, which was 23 times the loss rate from nearby grassy plots (0.066 t ha−1 y−1). These rates were then extrapolated linearly to two hillslopes separated by only 200 m and having similar total grass cover, slope and soil type but differing in the spatial structure of bare soil patches. The coarse-grained hillslope had a large bare patch on its lower slope, whereas the fine-grained hillslope had no bare soil patches when quantified at a 4 m grid-cell resolution. Measured sediment loss from the fine-grained hillslope averaged 0.050 t ha−1 y−1, whereas the average sediment loss from the coarse-grained hillslope was 2.133 t ha−1 y−1. By linearly extrapolating from the plot scale, the expected sediment loss for the fine-grained hillslope was 0.066 t ha−1 y−1, which is similar to that observed. The expected sediment loss for the coarse-grained hillslope was 0.855 t ha−1 y−1, where linear extrapolation assumed a 46:54 ratio of bare to grassy plots and that the spatial arrangement of plots does not affect sediment loss processes. For the coarse-grained hillslope observed sediment loss is 2.5 times greater than that expected by linear extrapolation from the plot scale. This result indicates a cross-scale interaction related to spatial configuration of patches. We suggest that there were non-linearities in hillslope ecohydrological transfer processes (runoff, erosion) across scales due to a specific patch configuration that greatly amplified sediment loss because the pattern failed to slow runoff and retain sediment before it entered a creek. This example supports the CSI framework and indicates the importance of considering the effect of spatial structure when predicting system dynamics at different scales.

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We gratefully acknowledge the research funding provided by Meat and Livestock Australia and CSIRO’s Water for Healthy Country Flagship Program. We thank Rob and Sue Bennetto for access to their cattle property where we conducted our field studies. We also thank Rex Keen, Jeff Corfield and other CSIRO colleagues for assistance with installing and collecting field data. We appreciate colleagues such as Anne Kinsey-Henderson, David Post, Christian Roth and David Tongway for discussing findings from our analyses. We also appreciate the comments and suggestions of reviewers and editors, especially the co-editor-in-chief (MGT), which greatly improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to John A. Ludwig.

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Ludwig, J.A., Bartley, R., Hawdon, A.A. et al. Patch Configuration Non-linearly Affects Sediment Loss across Scales in a Grazed Catchment in North-east Australia. Ecosystems 10, 839–845 (2007).

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