Challenges in studying water fluxes within the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum: A tracer-based perspective on pathways to progress

Natalie Orlowski*, Michael Rinderer, Maren Dubbert, Natalie Ceperley, Markus Hrachowitz, Arthur Gessler, Youri Rothfuss, Matthias Sprenger, Ingo Heidbüchel, More Authors

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/Letter to the editorScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Tracing and quantifying water fluxes in the hydrological cycle is crucial for understanding the current state of ecohydrological systems and their vulnerability to environmental change. Especially the interface between ecosystems and the atmosphere that is strongly mediated by plants is important to meaningfully describe ecohydrological system functioning. Many of the dynamic interactions generated by water fluxes between soil, plant and the atmosphere are not well understood, which is partly due to a lack of interdisciplinary research. This opinion paper reflects the outcome of a discussion among hydrologists, plant ecophysiologists and soil scientists on open questions and new opportunities for collaborative research on the topic “water fluxes in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum” especially focusing on environmental and artificial tracers. We emphasize the need for a multi-scale experimental approach, where a hypothesis is tested at multiple spatial scales and under diverse environmental conditions to better describe the small-scale processes (i.e., causes) that lead to large-scale patterns of ecosystem functioning (i.e., consequences). Novel in-situ, high-frequency measurement techniques offer the opportunity to sample data at a high spatial and temporal resolution needed to understand the underlying processes. We advocate for a combination of long-term natural abundance measurements and event-based approaches. Multiple environmental and artificial tracers, such as stable isotopes, and a suite of experimental and analytical approaches should be combined to complement information gained by different methods. Virtual experiments using process-based models should be used to inform sampling campaigns and field experiments, e.g., to improve experimental designs and to simulate experimental outcomes. On the other hand, experimental data are a pre-requisite to improve our currently incomplete models. Interdisciplinary collaboration will help to overcome research gaps that overlap across different earth system science fields and help to generate a more holistic view of water fluxes between soil, plant and atmosphere in diverse ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number163510
Number of pages16
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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Green Open Access added to TU Delft Institutional Repository ‘You share, we take care!’ – Taverne project
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  • Ecosystem research
  • Hydrology
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives
  • Isotope tracers
  • Plant ecophysiology
  • Soil science
  • Water fluxes

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