A Scaling Rule for Landscape Patches and How It Applies to Conserving Soil Resources in Savannas
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Scaling issues are complex, yet understanding issues such as scale dependencies in ecological patterns and processes is usually critical if we are to make sense of ecological data and if we want to predict how land management options, for example, are constrained by scale. In this article, we develop the beginnings of a way to approach the complexity of scaling issues. Our approach is rooted in scaling functions, which integrate the scale dependency of patterns and processes in landscapes with the ways that organisms scale their responses to these patterns and processes. We propose that such functions may have sufficient generality that we can develop scaling rules—statements that link scale with consequences for certain phenomena in certain systems. As an example, we propose that in savanna ecosystems, there is a consistent relationship between the size of vegetation patches in the landscape and the degree to which critical resources, such as soil nutrients or water, become concentrated in these patches. In this case, the features of the scaling functions that underlie this rule have to do with physical processes, such as surface water flow and material redistribution, and the ways that patches of plants physically “capture” such runoff and convert it into plant biomass, thereby concentrating resources and increasing patch size. To be operationally useful, such scaling rules must be expressed in ways that can generate predictions. We developed a scaling equation that can be used to evaluate the potential impacts of different disturbances on vegetation patches and on how soils and their nutrients are conserved within Australian savanna landscapes. We illustrate that for a 10-km2 paddock, given an equivalent area of impact, the thinning of large tree islands potentially can cause a far greater loss of soil nitrogen (21 metric tons) than grazing out small grass clumps (2 metric tons). Although our example is hypothetical, we believe that addressing scaling problems by first conceptualizing scaling functions, then proposing scaling rules, and then deriving scaling equations is a useful approach. Scaling equations can be used in simulation models, or (as we have done) in simple hypothetical scenarios, to collapse the complexity of scaling issues into a manageable framework.
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