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Hydrologic regulation of plant rooting depth

Ying Fan, Gonzalo Miguez-Macho, Esteban G. Jobbágy, Robert B. Jackson, Carlos Otero-Casal



Significance. Knowledge of plant rooting depth is critical to understanding plant-mediated global change. Earth system models are highly sensitive to this particular parameter with large consequences for modeled plant productivity, water–energy–carbon exchange between the land and the atmosphere, and silicate weathering regulating multimillion-year-timescale carbon cycle. However, we know little about how deep roots go and why. Accidental discoveries of >70-m-deep roots in wells and >20-m-deep roots in caves offer glimpses of the enormous plasticity of root response to its environment, but the drivers and the global significance of such deep roots are not clear. Through observations and modeling, we demonstrate that soil hydrology is a globally prevalent force driving landscape to global patterns of plant rooting depth.

Abstract. Plant rooting depth affects ecosystem resilience to environmental stress such as drought. Deep roots connect deep soil/groundwater to the atmosphere, thus influencing the hydrologic cycle and climate. Deep roots enhance bedrock weathering, thus regulating the long-term carbon cycle. However, we know little about how deep roots go and why. Here, we present a global synthesis of 2,200 root observations of >1,000 species along biotic (life form, genus) and abiotic (precipitation, soil, drainage) gradients. Results reveal strong sensitivities of rooting depth to local soil water profiles determined by precipitation infiltration depth from the top (reflecting climate and soil), and groundwater table depth from below (reflecting topography-driven land drainage). In well-drained uplands, rooting depth follows infiltration depth; in waterlogged lowlands, roots stay shallow, avoiding oxygen stress below the water table; in between, high productivity and drought can send roots many meters down to the groundwater capillary fringe. This framework explains the contrasting rooting depths observed under the same climate for the same species but at distinct topographic positions. We assess the global significance of these hydrologic mechanisms by estimating root water-uptake depths using an inverse model, based on observed productivity and atmosphere, at 30″ (∼1-km) global grids to capture the topography critical to soil hydrology. The resulting patterns of plant rooting depth bear a strong topographic and hydrologic signature at landscape to global scales. They underscore a fundamental plant–water feedback pathway that may be critical to understanding plant-mediated global change.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, No. 40. (03 October 2017), pp. 10572-10577, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1712381114 
Key: INRMM:14445153

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