Seeing roots from space: aboveground fingerprints of root depth in vegetation sensitivity to climate in dry biomes
Kühn N., Spiegel MP., Tovar C., Willis KJ., Macias-Fauria M.
With predicted climate change, drylands are set to get warmer and drier, increasing water stress for the vegetation in these regions. Plant sensitivity to drier periods and drought events will largely depend on trait strategies to access and store water, often linked to the root system. However, understanding the role of below-ground traits in enhancing ecological resilience to these climate changes remains poorly understood. We present the results of a study in southern Africa where we analysed the relationship between root depth and the vegetation sensitivity index (VSI) (after Seddon and Macias-Fauria et al 2016 Nature 531 229-32). VSI demonstrates remotely-sensed aboveground vegetation responses to climate variability; thus our study compares aboveground vegetation responses to belowground root traits. Results showed a significant negative relationship between root depth and vegetation sensitivity. Deeper roots provided greater resistance to climate variability as shown by lower sensitivity and higher temporal autocorrelation in vegetation greenness (as measured by the enhanced vegetation index). Additionally, we demonstrated a link between deeper roots and depth to groundwater, further suggesting that it is the ability of deeper roots to enable access to groundwater that provides ecological resistance to climate variability. Our results therefore provide important empirical evidence that the ability to access deeper water resources during times of lower water availability through deeper roots, is a key trait for dryland vegetation in the face of future climate change. We also show that belowground traits in drylands leave a fingerprint on aboveground, remotely-sensed plant-climate interactions, an important finding to aid in scaling up data-scarce belowground research.