Bistable Plant–Soil Dynamics and Biogenic Controls on the Soil Production Function

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Earth Surface Processes and Landforms

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Soil formation results from opposite processes of bedrock weathering and erosion, whose balance may be altered by natural events and human activities, resulting in reduced soil depth and function. The impacts of vegetation on soil production and erosion and the feedbacks between soil formation and vegetation growth are only beginning to be explored quantitatively. Since plants require suitable soil environments, disturbed soil states may support less vegetation, leading to a downward spiral of increased erosion and decline in ecosystem function. We explore these feedbacks with a minimal model of the soil–plant system described by two coupled nonlinear differential equations, which include key feedbacks, such as plant‐driven soil production and erosion inhibition. We show that sufficiently strong positive plant–soil feedback can lead to a ‘humped’ soil production function, a necessary condition for soil depth bistability when erosion is assumed to vary monotonically with vegetation biomass. In bistable plant–soil systems, the sustainable soil condition engineered by plants is only accessible above a threshold vegetation biomass and occurs in environments where the high potential rate of erosion exerts a strong control on soil production and erosion. Vegetation removal for agriculture reduces the stabilizing effect of vegetation and lowers the system resilience, thereby increasing the likelihood of transition to a degraded soil state.


Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, Vol. 41, No. 8 (June 30, 2016): DOI.