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Fertility Island Formation and Evolution in Dryland Ecosystems

Luca Ridolfi, Politecnico di Torino
Francesco Laio, Politecnico di Torino
Paolo D’Odorico, University of Virginia


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Vast dryland regions around the world are affected by the encroachment of woody vegetation, with important environmental and economical implications. Grassland-to-shrubland conversions are often triggered by disturbance of grassland vegetation, and the consequent formation of barren areas prone to erosion-induced nutrient losses. Inhibition of encroachment by erosion-induced depletion of soil nutrients contributes to the emergence of highly heterogeneous landscapes with shrub-dominated fertility islands surrounded by nutrient-poor bare soil. Here, we develop a process-based simplistic model thataccounts for the two competing processes of resource depletion and shrub encroachment by a non-linear diffusion mechanism. The proposed model is able to generate stable vegetation patterns with the same statistical properties as those observed in areas with well-developed fertility islands. We also show how a subsequent disturbance of shrubland vegetation can shift the dynamics toward states with smaller vegetation biomass. The process of land degradation may then occur through a number of irreversible intermediate transitions associated with losses in ecosystem function.

Key words

desertification; islands of fertility; non-linear diffusion; stability; vegetation patterns

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087