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Detection and Analysis of Spatiotemporal Changes in Great Basin Groundwater Dependent Vegetation Vigor
AuthorSmith, Guy Smith
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Throughout much of the arid Western United States, groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs; those in which the flora necessarily rely on surface expressions of groundwater) represent hotspots of biodiversity, providing pockets of rich mesic habitat in an otherwise arid landscape. Yet, despite their integral ecological role, little is known about the long term dynamic spatiotemporal response of GDEs in arid lands to both disturbance and climatic variability. Climate change and anthropogenic groundwater abstraction have combined to drastically alter the hydrologic regime throughout regions of the Great Basin. As such, anthropogenically induced or exacerbated hydrologic disturbance have placed springs, wetlands, phreatophytic flats and a slough of additional Great Basin GDEs under intense environmental stress. Given the ecological and economic value of the many ecosystem services these unique environments perform, improving understanding of their spatiotemporal dynamics such that resource managers may simultaneously meet the needs of both humans and nature, is of the utmost importance. Remotely sensed vegetation indices (VI) are commonly used proxies for estimating vegetation vigor and net primary productivity across many terrestrial ecosystems, though limitations in data availability and computing power have historically confined these analyses both spatially and temporally. In this work, however, spatiotemporally vast analyses of GDE vegetation vigor change through space and time were conducted using Google’s Earth Engine (EE) cloud computing and environmental monitoring platform. This platform allows for the streamlining of computationally intense environmental analyses, and to access pre-processed Landsat archive and gridded meteorological data, effectively overcoming the temporal and spatial constraints previously posed by limited economic resources and computing power. Results of Landsat derived GDE vegetation vigor and associated environmental variable time series’ and trend analyses illustrate the existence of a strong and highly significant coupling between depth to groundwater (DTG) and GDE vegetation vigor. Further, it was found that the presence of groundwater-vegetation feedbacks renders these systems highly prone to irreversible transitions to alternative, often barren or xerophytic, ecohydrological states, should a given GDE become decoupled from shallow groundwater resources as a result of surpassing species and tissue specific soil moisture threshold values.