Multi-climate mode interactions drive hydrological and vegetation responses to hydroclimatic extremes in Australia

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Journal Article
Remote Sensing of Environment, 2019, 231
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© 2019 Australia has experienced a large frequency of hydroclimatic events since the early 21st century, with multiple large-scale droughts and flooding rains exerting dramatic impacts on water resources and ecosystems. Despite these pronounced consequences, the coupling of ecosystem functioning to extreme climate variability remains elusive due to the lack of complete understanding of hydrological connections. In this study, we investigated the spatiotemporal trends of Australia's hydrological and vegetation responses to three climate modes: El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Indian Ocean dipole and the Southern Annular Mode, utilizing climate indices, satellite-derived total water storage anomaly (TWSA) from GRACE, precipitation from TRMM and vegetation greenness from MODIS. Using partial cross-correlation and vegetation sensitivity analyses to interpret the interactions among climate modes, water resources and vegetation across Australia, three hydroclimatic extreme events from 2002 to 2017 were analyzed: (i) a prolonged drought (2002–09, colloquially known as the ‘big dry’); (ii) a dramatic wet pulse (2010–11, the ‘big wet’); and (iii) another anomalous El Niño event (2015). Our results showed the entire continent partitioned into three geographic zones with diverse drying and wetting trends in total water storage, precipitation and vegetation greenness, reflecting varying and fundamental influences from the individual climate modes. Ecosystem productivity was found to be better related and more sensitive to TWSA than precipitation across different hydroclimate zones and during both extreme dry and wet conditions. We also observed TWSA increased rapidly during wet extremes, and these gains in water resources persisted for an additional four years (i.e., TWSA remained positive until 2015 following the 2011 ‘big wet’). Lastly, findings from another hydroclimatic event (the 2015 El Niño drought) further confirmed the relationships among climate, water and ecosystems, demonstrating the feasibility of predicting ecohydrological implications of future hydroclimatic extremes in Australia.
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