Topographically Moderated Soil Water Seasons Impact Vegetation Dynamics in Semiarid Mountain Catchments: Illustrations from the Dry Creek Experimental Watershed, Idaho, USA

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Water stored in soils, in part, controls vegetation productivity and the duration of growing seasons in wildland ecosystems. Soil water is the dynamic product of precipitation, evapotranspiration and soil properties, all of which vary across complex terrain making it challenging to decipher the specific controls that soil water has on growing season dynamics. We assess how soil water use by plants varies across elevations and aspects in the Dry Creek Experimental Watershed in southwest Idaho, USA, a mountainous, semiarid catchment that spans low elevation rain to high elevation snow regimes. We compare trends in soil water and soil temperature with corresponding trends in insolation, precipitation and vegetation productivity, and we observe trends in the timing, rate and duration of soil water extraction by plants across ranges in elevation and aspect. The initiation of growth-supporting conditions, indicated by soil warming, occurs 58 days earlier at lower, compared with higher, elevations. However, growth-supporting conditions also end earlier at lower elevations due to the onset of soil water depletion 29 days earlier than at higher elevations. A corresponding shift in peak NDVI timing occurs 61 days earlier at lower elevations. Differences in timing also occur with aspect, with most threshold timings varying by 14–30 days for paired north- and south-facing sites at similar elevations. While net primary productivity nearly doubles at higher elevations, the duration of the warm-wet period of active water use does not vary systematically with elevation. Instead, the greater ecosystem productivity is related to increased soil water storage capacity, which supports faster soil water use and growth rates near the summer solstice and peak insolation. Larger soil water storage does not appear to extend the duration of the growing season, but rather supports higher growing season intensity when wet-warm soil conditions align with high insolation. These observations highlight the influence of soil water storage capacity in dictating ecological function in these semiarid steppe climatic regimes.