Dynamics of organic carbon losses by water erosion after biocrust removal

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In arid and semiarid ecosystems, plant interspaces are frequently covered by communities of cyanobacteria, algae, lichens and mosses, known as biocrusts. These crusts often act as runoff sources and are involved in soil stabilization and fertility, as they prevent erosion by water and wind, fix atmospheric C and N and contribute large amounts of C to soil. Their contribution to the C balance as photosynthetically active surfaces in arid and semiarid regions is receiving growing attention. However, very few studies have explicitly evaluated their contribution to organic carbon (OC) lost from runoff and erosion, which is necessary to ascertain the role of biocrusts in the ecosystem C balance. Furthermore, biocrusts are not resilient to physical disturbances, which generally cause the loss of the biocrust and thus, an increase in runoff and erosion, dust emissions, and sediment and nutrient losses. The aim of this study was to find out the influence of biocrusts and their removal on dissolved and sediment organic carbon losses. One-hour extreme rainfall simulations (50 mm h-1) were performed on small plots set up on physical soil crusts and three types of biocrusts, representing a development gradient, and also on plots where these crusts were removed from. Runoff and erosion rates, dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and organic carbon bonded to sediments (SdOC) were measured during the simulated rain. Our results showed different SdOC and DOC for the different biocrusts and also that the presence of biocrusts substantially decreased total organic carbon (TOC) (average 1.80±1.86 g m-2) compared to physical soil crusts (7.83±3.27 g m-2). Within biocrusts, TOC losses decreased as biocrusts developed, and erosion rates were lower. Thus, erosion drove TOC losses while no significant direct relationships were found between TOC losses and runoff. In both physical crusts and biocrusts, DOC and SdOC concentrations were higher during the first minutes after runoff began and decreased over time as nutrient-enriched fine particles were washed away by runoff water. Crust removal caused a strong increase in water erosion and TOC losses. The strongest impacts on TOC losses after crust removal occurred on the lichen plots, due to the increased erosion when they were removed. DOC concentration was higher in biocrust-removed soils than in intact biocrusts, probably because OC is more strongly retained by BSC structures, but easily blown away in soils devoid of them. However, SdOC concentration was higher in intact than removed biocrusts associated with greater OC content in the top crust than in the soil once the crust is scraped off. Consequently, the loss of biocrusts leads to OC impoverishment of nutrient-limited interplant spaces in arid and semiarid areas and the reduction of soil OC heterogeneity, essential for vegetation productivity and functioning of this type of ecosystems.

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