Microtopography is a fundamental organizing structure of vegetation and soil chemistry in black ash wetlands
Diamond, Jacob S.
McLaughlin, Daniel L.
Slesak, Robert A.
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All wetland ecosystems are controlled by water table and soil saturation dynamics, so any local-scale deviation in soil elevation and thus water table position represents variability in this primary control. Wetland microtopography is the structured variability in soil elevation and is typically categorized into a binary classification of local high points (hummocks) and local low points (hollows). Although the influence of microtopography on vegetation composition and biogeochemical processes in wetlands has received attention around the globe, its role in forested wetlands is still less understood. We studied relationships among microtopography and understory vegetation communities, tree biomass, and soil chemistry in 10 black ash (Fraxinus nigra Marshall) wetlands in northern Minnesota, USA. To do so, we combined a 1 cm resolution surface elevation model generated from terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) with colocated water table, vegetation, and soil measurements. We observed that microtopography was an important structural element across sites, where hummocks were loci of greater species richness; greater midstory and canopy basal area; and higher soil concentrations of chloride, phosphorus, and base cations. In contrast, hollows were associated with higher soil nitrate and sulfate concentrations. We also found that the effect of microtopography on vegetation and soils was greater at wetter sites than at drier sites, suggesting that the distance-to-mean water table is a primary determinant of wetland biogeochemistry. These findings highlight clear controls of microtopography on vegetation and soil distributions while also supporting the notion that microtopography arises from feedbacks that concentrate biomass, soil nutrients, and productivity on microsite highs, especially in otherwise wet conditions. We therefore conclude that microtopography is a fundamental organizing structure in black ash wetlands.