Seasonal patterns in soil moisture, vapour pressure deficit, tree canopy cover and pre-dawn water potential in a Northern Australian savanna

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Journal Article
Australian Journal of Botany, 1997, 45 (2), pp. 211 - 224
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The wet-dry tropics of northern Australia are characterised by extreme seasonal variation in rainfall and atmospheric vapour pressure deficit, although temperatures are relatively constant throughout the year. This seasonal variation is associated with marked changes in tree canopy cover, although the exact determinants of these changes are complex. This paper reports variation in microclimate (temperature, vapour pressure deficit (VPD)), rainfall, soil moisture, understorey light environment (total daily irradiance), and pre-dawn leaf water potential of eight dominant tree species in an area of savanna near Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. Patterns of canopy cover are strongly influenced by both soil moisture and VPD. Increases in canopy cover coincide with decreases in VPD, and occur prior to increases in soil moisture that occur with the onset of wet season rains. Decreases in canopy cover coincide with decreases in soil moisture following the cessation of wet season rains and associated increases in VPD. Patterns of pre-dawn water potential vary significantly between species and between leaf phenological guilds. Pre-dawn water potential increases with decreasing VPD towards the end of the dry season prior to any increases in soil moisture. Decline in pre-dawn water potential coincides with both decreasing soil moisture and increasing VPD at the end of the dry season. This study emphasises the importance of the annual transition between the dry season and the wet season, a period of 1-2 months of relatively low VPD but little or no effective rainfall, preceded by a 4-6 month dry season of no rainfall and high VPD. This period is accompanied by markedly increased canopy cover, and significant increases in pre-dawn water potential, which are demonstrably independent of rainfall. This finding emphasises the importance of VPD as a determinant of physiological and phenological processes in Australian savannas.
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