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Punit Gandhi : Conceptual modeling of dryland vegetation patterns across timescales

Strikingly regular, large-scale patterns of vegetation growth were first documented by aerial photography in the Horn of Africa circa 1950 and are now known to exist in drylands across the globe. The patterns often appear on very gently sloped terrain as bands of dense vegetation alternating with bare soil, and models suggest that they may be a strategy for maximizing usage of the limited water available. A particular challenge for modeling these patterns is appropriately resolving fast processes such as surface water flow during rainstorms while still being able to capture slow dynamics such as the uphill migration of the vegetation bands, which has been observed to occur on the scale of a band width per century. We propose a pulsed-precipitation model that treats rainstorms as instantaneous kicks to the soil water as it interacts with vegetation on the timescale of plant growth. We use a stochastic rainfall model with the influence of fast storm-level hydrology captured by the spatial distribution of the soil water kicks. The model allows for predictions about the influence of storm characteristics on the large-scale patterns. Analysis and simulations suggest that the distance water travels on the surface before infiltrating into the soil during a typical storm plays a key role in determining the spacing between the bands.

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