Biotic and abiotic controls on carbon dynamics in a Central Texas encroaching savanna
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Anthropogenic activities are responsible for increases in atmospheric CO₂ and climate change. These increases are partly counterbalanced by natural processes, such as carbon uptake in land surfaces. These processes are themselves subject to climate change, creating a coupled carbon-climate system. I investigated the carbon sink that woody encroachment represents, using a Central Texas savanna as study site, and studied how climatic factors influence this carbon sink. Woody plant encroachment, a worldwide structural change in grassland and savanna ecosystems, alters many ecosystem properties, but the net effect on the carbon balance is uncertain. Woody encroachment represents one of the key uncertainties in the US carbon balance, and demands a more detailed understanding. To come to a process-based understanding of the encroachment effect on carbon dynamics, I analyzed patterns of carbon exchange using eddy-covariance technology. I expected the imbalance between carbon uptake and release processes associated with the encroaching trees specifically, to be responsible for the carbon sink. I also expected that the sink would vary in time, due to strong links between carbon fluxes and soil water in this semi-arid ecosystem. I further studied the ecophysiology of the dominant species, as well as soil respiration processes under different vegetation types, and scaled these findings in space and time. I found that the ecosystem was a significant carbon sink of 405 g C m⁻² yr⁻¹. The encroaching trees increased photosynthesis by 180% and decreased soil respiration by 14%, compared to the grassland, resulting in a strong carbon sink due to the encroachment process. The encroaching process also altered carbon dynamics in relation to climatic drivers. The evergreen species Ashe juniper effectively lengthened the growing season and widened the temperature range over which the ecosystem acts as a carbon sink. The drought resistance of the encroaching trees reduced the sensitivity of this savanna to drought. I conclude that encroachment in Central Texas savannas increased the carbon sink strength by increasing the carbon inputs into the ecosystem. Woody encroachment also reduced the sensitivity to climatic drivers. These two effects constitute a direct effect, as well as a negative feedback to the coupled carbon-climate system.