Modeling the topographic influence on aboveground biomass using a coupled model of hillslope hydrology and ecosystem dynamics

Yilin Fang, L. Ruby Leung, Charles D. Koven, Gautam Bisht, Matteo Detto, Yanyan Cheng, Nate McDowell, Helene Muller-Landau, S. Joseph Wright, Jeffrey Q. Chambers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Topographic heterogeneity and lateral subsurface flow at the hillslope scale of ≤ 1km may have outsized impacts on tropical forest through their impacts on water available to plants under water-stressed conditions. However, vegetation dynamics and finer-scale hydrologic processes are not concurrently represented in Earth system models. In this study, we integrate the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM) land model (ELM) that includes the Functionally Assembled Terrestrial Ecosystem Simulator (FATES), with a three-dimensional hydrology model (ParFlow) to explicitly resolve hillslope topography and subsurface flow and perform numerical experiments to understand how hillslope-scale hydrologic processes modulate vegetation along water availability gradients at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. Our simulations show that groundwater table depth (WTD) can play a large role in governing aboveground biomass (AGB) when drought-induced tree mortality is triggered by hydraulic failure. Analyzing the simulations using random forest (RF) models, we find that the domain-wide simulated AGB and WTD can be well predicted by static topographic attributes, including surface elevation, slope, and convexity, and adding soil moisture or groundwater table depth as predictors further improves the RF models. Different model representations of mortality due to hydraulic failure can change the dominant topographic driver for the simulated AGB. Contrary to the simulations, the observed AGB in the well-drained 50 ha forest census plot within BCI cannot be well predicted by the RF models using topographic attributes and observed soil moisture as predictors, suggesting other factors such as nutrient status may have a larger influence on the observed AGB. The new coupled model may be useful for understanding the diverse impact of local heterogeneity by isolating the water availability and nutrient availability from the other external and internal factors in ecosystem modeling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7879-7901
Number of pages23
JournalGeoscientific Model Development
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 26 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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