Climate Sensitivity of the Arid Scrublands on the Tibetan Plateau Mediated by Plant Nutrient Traits and Soil Nutrient Availability


Climate models predict the further intensification of global warming in the future. Drylands, as one of the most fragile ecosystems, are vulnerable to changes in temperature, precipitation, and drought extremes. However, it is still unclear how plant traits interact with soil properties to regulate drylands’ responses to seasonal and interannual climate change. The vegetation sensitivity index (VSI) of desert scrubs in the Qaidam Basin (NE Tibetan Plateau) was assessed by summarizing the relative contributions of temperature (SGST), precipitation (SGSP), and drought (temperature vegetation dryness index, STVDI) to the dynamics of the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) during plant growing months yearly from 2000 to 2015. Nutrient contents, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in topsoils and leaves of plants, were measured for seven types of desert scrub communities at 22 sites in the summer of 2016. Multiple linear and structural equation models were used to reveal how leaf and soil nutrient regimes affect desert scrubs’ sensitivity to climate variability. The results showed that total soil nitrogen (STN) and leaf carbon content (LC), respectively, explained 25.9% and 17.0% of the VSI variance across different scrub communities. Structural equation modeling (SEM) revealed that STN and total soil potassium (STK) mediated desert scrub’s VSI indirectly via SGST (with standardized path strength of −0.35 and +0.32, respectively) while LC indirectly via SGST and SGSP (with standardized path strength of −0.31 and −0.19, respectively). Neither soil nor leave nutrient contents alone could explain the VSI variance across different sites, except for the indirect influences of STN and STK via STVDI (−0.18 and 0.16, respectively). Overall, this study disentangled the relative importance of plant nutrient traits and soil nutrient availability in mediating the climatic sensitivity of desert scrubs in the Tibetan Plateau. Integrating soil nutrient availability with plant functional traits together is recommended to better understand the mechanisms behind dryland dynamics under global climate change.

In Remote Sensing