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Feedbacks between vegetation pattern and resource loss dramatically decrease ecosystem resilience and restoration potential in a simple dryland model

Mayor, Ángeles G., Kéfi, Sonia, Bautista, Susana, Rodríguez, Francisco, Cartení, Fabrizio, Rietkerk, Max
Landscape ecology 2013 v.28 no.5 pp. 931-942
arid lands, ecosystems, environmental factors, landscapes, models, plant establishment, vegetation cover
Conceptual frameworks of dryland degradation commonly include ecohydrological feedbacks between landscape spatial organization and resource loss, so that decreasing cover and size of vegetation patches result in higher water and soil losses, which lead to further vegetation loss. However, the impacts of these feedbacks on dryland dynamics in response to external stress have barely been tested. Using a spatially-explicit model, we represented feedbacks between vegetation pattern and landscape resource loss by establishing a negative dependence of plant establishment on the connectivity of runoff-source areas (e.g., bare soils). We assessed the impact of various feedback strengths on the response of dryland ecosystems to changing external conditions. In general, for a given external pressure, these connectivity-mediated feedbacks decrease vegetation cover at equilibrium, which indicates a decrease in ecosystem resistance. Along a gradient of gradual increase of environmental pressure (e.g., aridity), the connectivity-mediated feedbacks decrease the amount of pressure required to cause a critical shift to a degraded state (ecosystem resilience). If environmental conditions improve, these feedbacks increase the pressure release needed to achieve the ecosystem recovery (restoration potential). The impact of these feedbacks on dryland response to external stress is markedly non-linear, which relies on the non-linear negative relationship between bare-soil connectivity and vegetation cover. Modelling studies on dryland vegetation dynamics not accounting for the connectivity-mediated feedbacks studied here may overestimate the resistance, resilience and restoration potential of drylands in response to environmental and human pressures. Our results also suggest that changes in vegetation pattern and associated hydrological connectivity may be more informative early-warning indicators of dryland degradation than changes in vegetation cover.