Landsat and GRACE observations of arid wetland dynamics in a dryland river system under multi-decadal hydroclimatic extremes

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
Journal of Hydrology, 2016, 543 pp. 818 - 831
Issue Date:
2016-12-01
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© 2016 Elsevier B.V. Arid wetlands are important for biodiversity conservation, but sensitive and vulnerable to climate variability and hydroclimatic events. Amplification of the water cycle, including the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and wet extremes, is expected to alter spatial and temporal hydrological patterns in arid wetlands globally, with potential threats to ecosystem services and their functioning. Despite these pressing challenges, the ecohydrological interactions and resilience of arid wetlands to highly variable water regimes over long time periods remain largely unknown. Recent broad-scale drought and floods over Australia provide unique opportunities to improve our understanding of arid wetland ecosystem responses to hydroclimatic extremes. Here we analysed the ecohydrological dynamics of the Coongie Lakes arid wetland in central Australia, one of the world's largest Ramsar-designated wetlands, using more than two decades (1988–2011) of vegetation and floodwater extent retrievals derived from Landsat satellite observations. To explore the impacts of large-scale hydrological fluctuations on the arid wetland, we further coupled Landsat measurements with Total Water Storage Anomaly (TWSA) data obtained from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites. Pronounced seasonal and inter-annual variabilities of flood and vegetation activities were observed over the wetland, with variations in vegetation growth extent highly correlated with flood extent (r = 0.64, p < 0.05) that ranged from nearly zero to 3456 km 2 . We reported the hydrological dynamics and associated ecosystem responses to be largely driven by the two phases (El Niño and La Niña) of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) ocean-atmosphere system. Changes in flood and vegetation extent were better explained by GRACE–TWSA (r = 0.8, lag = 0 month) than rainfall (r = 0.34, lag = 3 months) over the water source area, demonstrating that TWS is a valuable hydrological indicator for complex dryland river systems. The protracted Millennium Drought from 2001 to 2009 resulted in long-term absence of major flood events, which substantially suppressed wetland vegetation growth. However, the 2010–11 La Niña induced flooding events led to an exceptionally large resurgence of vegetation, with a mean vegetation growth extent anomaly exceeding the historical average (1988–2011) by more than 1.5 standard deviations, suggesting a significant resilience of arid wetland ecosystems to climate variability. This study showed the ecological functioning of arid wetlands is particularly sensitive to large-scale hydrological fluctuations and extreme drought conditions, and vulnerable to future altered water regimes due to climate change. The methods developed herein can be applied to arid wetlands located in other dryland river systems across the globe.
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