Quantitative effects of vegetation cover on wind erosion and soil nutrient loss in a desert grassland of southern New Mexico, USA

Abstract

Wind is a key abiotic factor that influences the dynamics of arid and semiarid systems. We investigated two basic relationships on vegetation manipulation (grass cover reduction) plots at the Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico: (1) wind erosion rates (horizontal mass flux and dust emission) versus vegetative cover, and (2) nutrient loss versus vegetative cover. The results indicate that wind erosion rates and nutrient loss by dust emission are strongly affected by plant cover; however, the importance of shrubs and grasses in reducing dust flux may not be equal. The dramatic increase of wind erosion between 75% grass cover reduction and 100% grass cover reduction suggests that sparsely distributed mesquites are relatively ineffective at reducing wind erosion and nutrient loss compared to grasses. Comparisons of nutrients between surface soils and wind blown dust indicate that aeolian transport is a major cause for the loss of soil nutrients in susceptible environments. We found that increased aeolian flux over three windy seasons (March 2004–July 2006) removed up to 25% of total organic carbon (TOC) and total nitrogen (TN) from the top 5 cm of soil, and about 60% of TOC and TN loss occurred in the first windy season (March–July 2004). The balance between net loss of nutrients by aeolian processes and the addition of nutrients by biotic processes changed from negative (net loss) to positive (net accumulation) between 50% grass cover reduction and 25% grass cover reduction. The estimated lifetime of surface soil TOC and TN of about 10 years on the plot with 100% grass cover reduction indicates that impacts of wind erosion on soil resources can occur on very short timescales.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Jacquie Hui, Mike Abrams, Emilee Carpenter, Melissa Castiano, Fang Liu, Tom Zhao, Lixin Wang, and Chuanhui Gu for their assistance in the field, laboratory analysis and data processing. Headquarters of the JER staff Eddie Garcia, Rob Dunlap and David Thatcher provided invaluable assistance during the field study time. Some of the wind and precipitation data were provided by the Jornada LTER Weather Station. We also appreciate the anonymous reviewers for their comments on this manuscript. This research was funded by the NSF-Ecosystems studies grant # 0316320. It was further supported by the NSF-LTER Grant DEB-0080412.

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Correspondence to Junran Li.

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Li, J., Okin, G.S., Alvarez, L. et al. Quantitative effects of vegetation cover on wind erosion and soil nutrient loss in a desert grassland of southern New Mexico, USA. Biogeochemistry 85, 317–332 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-007-9142-y

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Keywords

  • Aeolian processes
  • Deserts
  • Soil nitrogen
  • Soil carbon
  • Vegetation cover
  • Wind erosion
  • Windblown sediment