Antunes, C., Chozas, S., West, J., Zunzunegui, M., Diaz Barradas, M.C., Vieira, S. & Máguas, C. (2018) Groundwater drawdown drives ecophysiological adjustments of woody vegetation in a semi-arid coastal ecosystem.Global Change Biology, 24, 4894-4908. DOI:10.1111/gcb.14403 (IF2017 8,997; Q1 Ecology)
Predicted droughts and anthropogenic water use will increase groundwater lowering rates and intensify groundwater limitation, particularly for Mediterranean semi‐arid ecosystems. These hydrological changes may be expected to elicit differential functional responses of vegetation either belowground or aboveground. Yet, our ability to predict the impacts of groundwater changes on these ecosystems is still poor. Thus, we sought to better understand the impact of falling water table on the physiology of woody vegetation. We specifically ask (a) how is woody vegetation ecophysiological performance affected by water table depth during the dry season? and (b) does the vegetation response to increasing depth to groundwater differ among water‐use functional types? We examined a suite of physiological parameters and water‐uptake depths of the dominant, functionally distinct woody vegetation along a water‐table depth gradient in a Mediterranean semi‐arid coastal ecosystem that is currently experiencing anthropogenic groundwater extraction pressure. We found that groundwater drawdown did negatively affect the ecophysiological performance of the woody vegetation. Across all studied environmental factors, depth to groundwater was the most important driver of ecophysiological adjustments. Plant functional types, independent of groundwater dependence, showed consistent declines in water content and generally reduced C and N acquisition with increasing depths to groundwater. Functional types showed distinct operating physiological ranges, but common physiological sensitivity to greater water table depth. Thus, although differences in water‐source use exist, a physiological convergence appeared to happen among different functional types. These results strongly suggest that hydrological drought has an important impact on fundamental physiological processes, constraining the performance of woody vegetation under semi‐arid conditions. By disentangling the functional responses and vulnerability of woody vegetation to groundwater limitation, our study establishes the basis for predicting the physiological responses of woody vegetation in semi‐arid coastal ecosystems to groundwater drawdown.