Friday, December 9, 2011

Graphs that don't exist: state factors and shade

Shade, drought, and nutrient scarcity are three resource stresses that constrain vegetation globally. Each of these are influenced by state factors as well as other more proximal controls on ecosystem function.

At least theoretically. We've actually never tested these ideas, which constrains our ability to explain and predict a lot about how ecosystems work.

Take shade. Plants produce leaves, which creates shade beneath them. Yet, the amount of shade in different stands varies tremendously. Theoretically, sites that are more limited by water should be able to produce less leaf area, leaving more light to the understory and removing a constraint on the growth of understory vegetation.

Despite decades of light measurements and hemispherical photographs of canopies, the data has never been synthesized to generate a global map of shade that can be analyzed in terms of determinants. Do dry ecosystems have a lower potential for producing shade than wet ecosystems? And how does that vary with temperature? Do forests in colder regions cast less shade, all other things equal?

Part of this echoes Peter Grubb's assertion that higher fertility sites should generate more shade and have more slow-growing shade-tolerant species, which still hasn't been tested directly as far as I can tell.

What holds for shade also holds for nutrient availability and water potentials. We just don't know the basic drivers of resource availability and hence don't know how global change factors like warming will affect the availability of the most limiting resources.

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