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Monday, 17 June 2013 00:00

Proven benefits of soil crusts in arid zone conservation

Discover Foundation - The University of Almeria team led by Yolanda Canton during an experiment of artificial rain on crusts Discover Foundation - The University of Almeria team led by Yolanda Canton during an experiment of artificial rain on crusts

Andalusian arid zones are characterized by a thin surface layer (invisible to the human eye), home to a large number of communities of microorganisms like bacteria, algae, fungi, mosses or lichens, known to experts as Biological Soil Crusts. Researchers at the University of Almeria have demonstrated the effects of these communities on the stability of the soil, water, sediment, nutrient distribution in the landscape and, ultimately, on maintining the proper functioning of the ecosystem.

In a study published in Ecosistemas magazine, titled 'Crust Composition and Disturbance Drive Infiltration Through Biological Soil Crusts in Semiarid Ecosystems', experts have shown that the redistribution of water in semi-arid ecosystems depends largely on the type of crust that occupy the spaces between the plants, as well as soil characteristics and moisture conditions. "However, human or artificial alteration of these areas means increased runoff or water flowing over the surface after rain and erosion, causing a deterioration in the functioning of ecosystems," explained study leader, Yolanda Canton, to Discover Foundation.

Experts have analyzed the influence of different types of physical and biological crusts, the latter in various stages of development, on the different water balance components such as infiltration, runoff, evaporation, soil moisture or dew deposition.

For this, after the first field trials with small plot scale, where experts analyzed the response of the crust under natural rainfall and extreme events (using rainfall simulations), the next step was to analyze the effect of biological crusts at other scales to transfer results to models and predict the behavior of these ecosystems in the event of a change in climatic conditions or land use. "We chose two semiarid ecosystems of the province of Almería characterized by presenting different topographies and distributions of soil crust areas such as Las Amoladeras and El Cautivo. The ultimate goal was to contribute to the management and restoration of ecosystems," explains Canton.

Results on slopes and basins

Experts have also transferred their methodology to slopes and small basins to assess the effects of crusts in these enclaves. As reflected in the study 'Runoff at contrasting scales in a semiarid ecosystem: A Balance Between complex biological soil crust features and rainfall Characteristics', recently published in the Journal of Hydrology, the researchers installed different plots completely covering the slopes and placed hydraulic structures at the outlet of the basins to obtain information regarding the amount of water and sediment circulating at a given moment or within a given time interval. This allowed them to record the response to rain within a very detailed and accurate timescale. "The most striking results are related to heavy rains, as they are the main factor or are directly responsible for the production of runoff in soils" the researchers explain.

Therefore, these data demonstrate that the crusts increase rainwater infiltration especially when they are of low intensity, a phenomenon common in arid areas of Andalusia. Also, in the event of heavy rains, which are the most erosive, scabs have a crucial role in protecting the soil against erosion.

In the future, through the modeling technique, ie by the application of models to predict and quantify the effects of crusts on water balance and soil erosion, researchers hope to develop a tool that is capable of identifying places where different practices are recommended to prevent and rehabilitate degraded soils and affected by crusting and areas where the coating should enhance biological crusts.

All these results are the fruit of excellence project COSTRAS funded by the Ministry of Economy, Innovation and Employment Science, cofunded by ERDF. "Our studies can contribute to a better understanding of the effects of the ground surface on erosion and water balance in the ecosystems of the arid and semi-arid zones of Andalusia," adds Cantón.

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