Experimental Manipulation of Soil-Surface Albedo Alters Phenology and Growth of Bromus tectorum (Cheatgrass)

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Purpose The sensitivity of wildland plants to temperature can be directly measured using experimental manipulations of temperature in situ. We show that soil surface temperature and plant density (per square meter) have a significant impact on the germination, growth, and phenology of Bromus tectorum L., cheatgrass, a short-statured invasive winter-annual grass, and assess a new experimental temperature manipulation method: the application of black and white gravel to warm and cool the soil surface.

Methods We monitored height, seed production, and phenological responses of cheatgrass, seeded into colored gravel at low and high densities at two sites in the western USA: Boise, ID and Cheyenne, WY. Soil surface temperature and volumetric water content were measured to assess treatment effects on soil surface microclimate.

Results Black gravel increased mean temperatures of the surface soil by 1.6 and 2.6 °C compared to white gravel in Cheyenne and Boise, respectively, causing 21–24 more days with soil temperatures > 0 °C, earlier cheatgrass germination, and up to 2.8-fold increases in cheatgrass height. Higher seeding density of cheatgrass led to 1.4-fold taller plants on black gravel plots at both sites, but not white gravel at the Boise site, indicating a possible thermal benefit or reduction of water demand due to plant clustering in warmer treatments.

Conclusions Manipulating soil-surface albedo altered the soil microclimate and thus growth and phenology of cheatgrass, whose life history and growth form confer a strong dependency on soil-surface conditions.


Toby M. Maxwell and Matthew J. Germino shared lead authorship.