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Soil moisture dynamics and restoration of self‐sustaining native vegetation ecosystem on an open‐cut coal mine

Ngugi, Michael R., Neldner, Victor J., Doley, David, Kusy, Brano, Moore, Darren, Richter, Christian
Restoration ecology 2015 v.23 no.5 pp. 615-624
coal, drying, ecological restoration, ecosystems, forests, indigenous species, landscapes, plant available water, rain, ripping, soil profiles, soil water content, soil water potential, topsoil, tree growth, trees, Queensland
Post‐mining landscape reconstruction on open‐cut coal mines aims to support restoration of self‐sustaining native vegetation ecosystems that in perpetuity require no extra inputs relative to unmined analogs. Little is known about the soil moisture retention capacity of the limited layer of topsoil replaced (often <30 cm deep), impacts of deep ripping of the profile, and the combined impacts of these on plant available water during the mine restoration process. We examined changes in soil moisture parameters (soil water potential, Ψ, and soil water content, Θ) daily using automated soil sensors installed at 30 and 45–65 cm depths on mine restoration sites aged between 3 and 22 years and on adjacent remnant vegetation sites following heavy rainfall events at Meandu mine, southeast Queensland, Australia. Consistent patterns in soil moisture attributes were observed among rehabilitated sites with generally marked differences from remnant sites. Remnant site soil profiles had generally higher Θ after drying than rehabilitated sites and maintained high Ψ for extended periods after rain events. There was a relatively rapid decline of Ψ on reconstructed soil profiles compared with remnant sites although the times of decline onset varied. This response indicated that vegetation restoration sites released soil moisture more rapidly than remnant sites but the rate of drying decreased with increasing rehabilitation age and increased with increasing tree stem density. The rapid drying of mine rehabilitated sites may threaten the survival of some remnant forest species, limit tree growth, and delay restoration of self‐sustaining native ecosystem.