Processes and effects of root-induced changes to soil hydraulic properties

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    [Truncated abstract] Root-induced changes to soil hydraulic properties (SHP) are an essential component in understanding the hydrology of an ecosystem, and the resilience of these to climate change. However, at present our capacity to predict how roots will modify SHP and the consequences of this is limited because our knowledge of the processes and effects are highly fragmented. Also, current models used to investigate the relationship between plants and root-induced changes to SHP are based on empirical relationships which have limited applicability to the various and often contrasting ecosystems that occur. This thesis focuses specifically on the quantifying the processes by which roots modify SHP and developing models that can predict changes to these and the water balance. Both increase and decreases in saturated hydraulic conductivity have been attributed to the presence of roots. In general, decreases occur when the root system is relatively young, and increases occur when the roots senesce and begin to decay, creating voids for water flow. The evidence available suggests that the change in pore geometry created by roots is the dominant process by which roots modify SHP because they are more permanent and of a greater magnitude than changes to fluid properties or soil structure. We first quantified the effects of wheat roots on SHP of a coarse sand with a laboratory experiment where we measured changes in both SHP and the root system at 3, 5, 7 and 9 weeks after sowing (weeks). ... The main message that can be drawn from this thesis is that root-induced changes to SHP are dynamic, and dependent upon the combination of soil texture, connectivity of root-modified pores and the ratio of root radius to pore radius. Consequently, root-induced changes to the water balance have the same dependencies. The work in this thesis provides a significant first step towards improving our capacity to predict how roots modify soil hydraulic properties. By defining the range for the parameters used to predict how the soil is modified by roots, we are able to make quantitative assessments of how a property such as hydraulic conductivity will change for a realistic circumstance. Also , for the first time we have measured changes in soil hydraulic properties and roots and have been able to establish why a rapid change from a root-induced decrease to increase in Ks occurred. The link between physiological stage of the root system, and the changes that are likely to occur has implications for understanding how roots modify SHP: it may provide an effective tool for predicting when the switch from a decrease to increase occurs. Further work is required to test the validity of the assumptions we have made in our models that predict changes to SHP. While we have endeavoured to define the parameter space for those parameters that we have introduced, there is still some uncertainty about the connectivity of root-modified pores. Also, the parameterisation of the soil domain with roots is based upon work that measures 'fine' roots only which may not provide a true representation of the effect trees and perennial shrubs have on SHP. It is inevitable that root-induced changes to SHP will affect the fate of solutes in the soil, and temporal dynamics of root-induced changes to these may be particularly important for the timing of nutrient and pesticide leaching.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2009

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