Articles | Volume 17, issue 2
Research article
26 Feb 2013
Research article |  | 26 Feb 2013

Soil moisture controls on patterns of grass green-up in Inner Mongolia: an index based approach

H. Liu, F. Tian, H. C. Hu, H. P. Hu, and M. Sivapalan

Abstract. Water availability is one of the most important environmental controls on vegetation phenology, especially in semi-arid regions. It is often represented in terms of soil moisture in small-scale studies, whereas it tends to be represented by precipitation in large-scale (e.g., regional) studies. Clearly, soil moisture is the more appropriate indicator for root water uptake and vegetation growth/phenology. Its potential advantage and applicability needs to be demonstrated at regional scales. The paper presents a data-based regional study of the effectiveness of novel water and temperature-based indices to predict spring vegetation green-up dates based on the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) observations in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China. The macro-scale hydrological model, VIC (Variable Infiltration Capacity), is employed to generate a soil moisture database across the region. In addition to a standard index based on temperature, two potential hydrology-based indices for prediction of spring onset dates are defined, based on the simulated soil moisture data as well as on observed precipitation data. Results indicate that the correspondence between the NDVI-derived green-up onset date and the soil-moisture-derived potential onset date exhibits a significantly better correlation as a function of increasing aridity compared to that based on precipitation. In this way the soil-moisture-based index is demonstrated to be superior to the precipitation-based index in terms of capturing grassland spring phenology. The results also showed that both of the hydrological (water-based) indices were superior to the thermal (temperature-based) index in determining the patterns of grass green-up in the Inner Mongolia region, indicating water availability to be the dominant control on average. The understanding about the relative controls on grassland phenology and the effectiveness of alternative indices to capture these controls are important for future studies of vegetation phenology change under climate change.