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Data-driven competitive facilitative tree interactions and their implications on nature-based solutions

Moustakas, Aristides, Daliakopoulos, Ioannis N., Benton, Tim G.
The Science of the total environment 2019 v.651 pp. 2269-2280
data analysis, ecosystems, environmental factors, planting, soil water, statistical models, surface temperature, trees, vegetation, water stress
Spatio-temporal data are more ubiquitous and richer than even before and the availability of such data poses great challenges in data analytics. Ecological facilitation, the positive effect of density of individuals on the individual's survival across a stress gradient, is a complex phenomenon. A large number of tree individuals coupled with soil moisture, temperature, and water stress data across a long temporal period were followed. Data-driven analysis in the absence of hypothesis was performed. Information theoretic analysis of multiple statistical models was employed in order to quantify the best data-driven index of vegetation density and spatial scale of interactions. Sequentially, tree survival was quantified as a function of the size of the individual, vegetation density, and time at the optimal spatial interaction scale. Land surface temperature and soil moisture were also statistically explained by tree size, density, and time. Results indicated that in space both facilitation and competition co-exist in the same ecosystem and the sign and magnitude of this depend on the spatial scale. Overall, within the optimal data-driven spatial scale, tree survival was best explained by the interaction between density and year, sifting overall from facilitation to competition through time. However, small sized trees were always facilitated by increased densities, while large sized trees had either negative or no density effects. Tree size was more important predictor than density in survival and this has implications for nature-based solutions: maintaining large tree individuals or planting species that can become large-sized can safeguard against tree-less areas by promoting survival at long time periods through harsh environmental conditions. Large trees had also a significant effect in moderating land surface temperature and this effect was higher than the one of vegetation density on temperature.