Though biological soil crusts (biocrusts) form abundant covers in arid and semiarid regions, their competing effects on soil hydrologic conditions are rarely accounted for in models. This study presents the modification of a soil water balance model to account for the presence of biocrusts at different levels of development (LODs) and their impact on one-dimensional hydrologic processes during warm and cold seasons. The model is developed, tested, and applied to study the hydrologic controls of biocrusts in the context of a long-term manipulative experiment equipped with meteorological and soil moisture measurements in a Colorado Plateau ecosystem near Moab, Utah. The climate manipulation treatments resulted in distinct biocrust communities, and model performance with respect to soil moisture was assessed in experimental plots with varying LOD as quantified through a field-based roughness index (RI). Model calibration and testing yielded excellent comparisons to observations and smooth variations of biocrust parameters with RI approximated through simple regressions. The model was then used to quantify how LOD affects soil infiltration, evapotranspiration, and run-off under calibrated conditions and in simulation experiments with gradual modifications in biocrust porosity and hydraulic conductivity. Simulation results show that highly developed biocrusts modulate soil moisture nonlinearly with LOD by altering soil infiltration and buffering against evapotranspiration losses, with small impacts on run-off. The nonlinear and threshold variations of the soil water balance in the presence of biocrusts of varying LOD helps explain conflicting outcomes of various field studies and sheds light on the ecohydrological role of biocrusts in arid and semiarid ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1875
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2017


  • Colorado Plateau
  • South-western United States
  • biocrust
  • biological soil crust ecohydrology model
  • manipulative experiment
  • roughness index
  • soil water balance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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