Relative contribution of groundwater to plant transpiration estimated with stable isotopes

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Water is generally taken up by roots (with important exceptions), so root structure and function should play a central role in research of plant-water relations. Photo by Pixabay

Water stored underground in the saturated and subsurface zones below the soil are important sources of water for plants in water-limited ecosystems. Arid and seasonally dry ecosystems contain the deepest root systems, and some species grow roots to depths of more than 4 m, even in temperate and tropical ecosystems. The presence of deep-rooted plants worldwide, however, suggests that the use of groundwater is not restricted to arid and seasonally dry ecosystems.

In a new study in the journal Scientific Reports authors compiled the available data (71 species) on the relative contribution of groundwater to plant water estimated using stable isotopes and mixing models, which provided information about relative groundwater use, and analysed their variation across different climates, seasons, plant types, edaphic conditions, and landscape positions.

Plant use of groundwater was more likely at sites with a pronounced dry season, and represented on average 49 per cent of transpired water in dry seasons and 28 per cent in wet seasons. The relative contribution of groundwater to plant-water uptake was higher on rocky substrates (saprolite, fractured bedrock), which had reduced groundwater uptake when this source was deep belowground.

Notably, authors found that the connectivity between groundwater pools and plant water is quantitatively larger and more widespread than reported by recent global estimations based on isotopic averaged values. Thus, “in order to improve the representation of groundwater-surface interactions in models, a quantification of the relative contribution of groundwater to transpiration and its variability across environmental gradients was required”, said Dr. Adrià Barbeta from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona, now in INRA Bourdeaux

Prof. Josep Peñuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona claims also that “further research on plant-water sources in boreal, polar regions and tropical rainforests would help our understanding of the global patterns of groundwater uptake and may substantially improve the biosphere-atmosphere models by a realistic representation of this important component of the water cycle”.

This study was funded by the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028, the Spanish Government project CGL2016-79835-P and the Catalan Government grant FI-2013

Journal Reference: Barbeta, A., Peñuelas, J. 2017. Relative contribution of groundwater to plant transpiration estimated with stable isotopes. Scientific Reports