A conceptual framework for dryland aeolian sediment transport along the grassland-forest continuum: Effects of woody plant canopy cover and disturbance

David D. Breshears, Jeffrey J. Whicker, Chris B. Zou, Jason P. Field, Craig D. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Aeolian processes are of particular importance in dryland ecosystems where ground cover is inherently sparse because of limited precipitation. Dryland ecosystems include grassland, shrubland, savanna, woodland, and forest, and can be viewed collectively as a continuum of woody plant cover spanning from grasslands with no woody plant cover up to forests with nearly complete woody plant cover. Along this continuum, the spacing and shape of woody plants determine the spatial density of roughness elements, which directly affects aeolian sediment transport. Despite the extensiveness of dryland ecosystems, studies of aeolian sediment transport have generally focused on agricultural fields, deserts, or highly disturbed sites where rates of transport are likely to be greatest. Until recently, few measurements have been made of aeolian sediment transport over multiple wind events and across a variety of types of dryland ecosystems. To evaluate potential trends in aeolian sediment transport as a function of woody plant cover, estimates of aeolian sediment transport from recently published studies, in concert with rates from four additional locations (two grassland and two woodland sites), are reported here. The synthesis of these reports leads to the development of a new conceptual framework for aeolian sediment transport in dryland ecosystems along the grassland-forest continuum. The findings suggest that: (1) for relatively undisturbed ecosystems, shrublands have inherently greater aeolian sediment transport because of wake interference flow associated with intermediate levels of density and spacing of woody plants; and (2) for disturbed ecosystems, the upper bound for aeolian sediment transport decreases as a function of increasing amounts of woody plant cover because of the effects of the height and density of the canopy on airflow patterns and ground cover associated with woody plant cover. Consequently, aeolian sediment transport following disturbance spans the largest range of rates in grasslands and associated systems with no woody plants (e.g., agricultural fields), an intermediate range in shrublands, and a relatively small range in woodlands and forests. These trends are consistent with previous observations relating large rates of wind erosion to intermediate values for spatial density of roughness elements. The framework for aeolian sediment transport, which is also relevant to dust fluxes, wind erosion, and related aeolian processes, is applicable to a diverse suite of environmental challenges, including land degradation and desertification, dust storms, contaminant transport, and alterations of the hydrological cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)28-38
Number of pages11
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2009


  • Aeolian sediment transport
  • BSNE
  • Dust
  • Shrubland
  • Wind erosion
  • Woodland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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