Articles | Volume 14, issue 10
27 Oct 2010
 | 27 Oct 2010

Ecohydrologic controls on vegetation density and evapotranspiration partitioning across the climatic gradients of the central United States

J. P. Kochendorfer and J. A. Ramírez

Abstract. The soil-water balance and plant water use are investigated over a domain encompassing the central United States using the Statistical-Dynamical Ecohydrology Model (SDEM). The seasonality in the model and its use of the two-component Shuttleworth-Wallace canopy model allow for application of an ecological optimality hypothesis in which vegetation density, in the form of peak green leaf area index (LAI), is maximized, within upper and lower bounds, such that, in a typical season, soil moisture in the latter half of the growing season just reaches the point at which water stress is experienced. Via a comparison to large-scale estimates of grassland productivity, modeled-determined peak green LAI for these systems is seen to be at least as accurate as the unaltered satellite-based observations on which they are based. A related feature of the SDEM is its partitioning of evapotranspiration into transpiration, evaporation from canopy interception, and evaporation from the soil surface. That partitioning is significant for the soil-water balance because the dynamics of the three processes are very different. Surprising little dependence on climate and vegetation type is found for the percentage of total evapotranspiration that is soil evaporation, with most of the variation across the study region attributable to soil texture and the resultant differences in vegetation density. While empirical evidence suggests that soil evaporation in the forested regions of the most humid part of the study region is somewhat overestimated, model results are in excellent agreement with observations from croplands and grasslands. The implication of model results for water-limited vegetation is that the higher (lower) soil moisture content in wetter (drier) climates is more-or-less completely offset by the greater (lesser) amount of energy available at the soil surface. This contrasts with other modeling studies which show a strong dependence of evapotranspiration partitioning on climate.