Linkages between microbial and hydrologic processes in arid and semiarid watersheds

Jayne Belnap, Jill R. Welter, Nancy Grimm, Nichole Barger, John A. Ludwig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

261 Scopus citations


Microbial activity in semiarid and arid environments is closely related to the timing, intensity, and amount of precipitation. The characteristics of the soil surface, especially the influence of biological soil crusts, can determine the amount, location, and timing of water infiltration into desert soils, which, in turn, determines the type and size of microbial response. Nutrients resulting from this pulse then create a positive feedback as increases in microbial and plant biomass enhance future resource capture or, alternatively, may be lost to the atmosphere, deeper soils, or downslope patches. When rainfall intensity overwhelms the water infiltration capacity of the plant interspace or the plant patch, overland water flow links otherwise separated patches at many different scales via the transport of nutrients in water, soil, and organic matter. For example, material carried from the plant interspace is often deposited under an adjacent plant. Alternatively, material from both of these patches may be carried to rills that feed ephemeral channels, thence to seasonally intermittent and, finally, perennial streams. These inputs can either be retained by the stream-riparian ecosystem or be exported in surface flow. However, in larger perennial streams, the fate of these material inputs is confounded by the impact of storm-driven flows on the extant aquatic biota, as flash floods can also represent succession-initiating disturbances to the stream-riparian ecosystem on a wide range of time scales. In contrast to uplands where precipitation initiates the microbial response, nutrient transfers can support a flush of plant uptake and microbial processing, triggered by high nutrient concentrations and changed nutrient form (e.g., nitrate or ammonium). The nature and strength of the linkages between the different ecosystem components define the structure and function of arid ecosystems. Losses of materials are natural processes, but it is problematic when " conserving" systems become "leaky" via anthropogenic disturbance and losses exceed gains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)298-307
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2005


  • Activity pulse
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Desert
  • Infiltration
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Precipitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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