The role of plant physiology in hydrology: looking backwards and forwards
Abstract. The implementation of plant physiological studies at the Institute of Hydrology focussed both on examining and understanding the physiological controls of transpiration as well as evaluating the value of using physiological methods to measure transpiration. Transpiration measurement by physiological methods would be particularly valuable where this could not be achieved by micrometeorological and soil physics methods. The principal physiological measurements used were determinations of leaf stomatal conductance and leaf water relations to monitor plant water stress. In this paper the value of these approaches is illustrated by describing a few case studies in which plant physiological insight, provided both as new measurements and existing knowledge, would aid in the interpretation of the hydrological behaviour of important vegetation. Woody vegetation figured largely in these studies, conducted in the UK and overseas. Each of these case studies is formulated as a quest to answer a particular question. A collaborative comparison of conifer forest transpiration in Thetford forest using micrometeorological and soil physics techniques exhibited a substantially larger (~1 mm day−1) estimate from the micrometeorological approach. So the question – Why is there a disagreement in the estimates of forest transpiration made using micrometeorological and soil physics approaches? A range of physiological studies followed that suggested that there was no one simple answer but that the larger estimate from the micrometeorology technique might include contributions of water taken up by deep roots, from shallow-rooted vegetation and possibly also from water previously stored in trees. These sources of water were probably not included in the soil physics estimate of transpiration. The annual transpiration from woodlands in NW Europe shows a low magnitude and notable similarity between different sites raising the question – Why is transpiration from European forests low and conservative? An important contribution both to the similar and low transpiration is the likely reduction of stomatal conductance of the foliage associated with increasing air humidity deficit. A greater response is usually found when initial conductances are highest. Also contributing to similarities in transpiration from forest stands would be a compensatory role of understories and that deficits in soil moisture may not come into play until severe soil water deficits occur. Physiological studies have been conducted in many locations overseas. The modest transpiration of tropical rainforest is intriguing – Why is tropical rainforest transpiration so low? In common with temperate trees the reduction of stomatal conductance of tropical trees in association with increasing air humidity deficit will limit transpiration. In addition the high leaf area index of tropical rainforest creates conditions in the lower canopy layers that mean transpiration from those layers is much reduced from what might be possible. As well as being used to quantify and understand transpiration, physiological techniques might be used to assess when plants require water. What is the first signal that plants need water? Studies on sugar cane in Mauritius indicated that leaf growth was the most sensitive measure. A look forward to the future suggests that there will be a continued need for physiological measurements particularly where other techniques more suited to extensive vegetation are not appropriate. There are many unresolved issues about water use from fragmented, heterogeneous vegetation and physiological approaches are best suited to these. The measurement of sap flow in individual stems will be an important methodology in the future but there are still methodological issues to resolve.