Reviews and syntheses: On the roles trees play in building and plumbing the critical zone

Susan L. Brantley, David M. Eissenstat, Jill A. Marshall, Sarah E. Godsey, Zsuzsanna Balogh-Brunstad, Diana L. Karwan, Shirley A. Papuga, Joshua Roering, Todd E. Dawson, Jaivime Evaristo, Oliver Chadwick, Jeffrey J. McDonnell, Kathleen C. Weathers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

106 Scopus citations


Trees, the most successful biological power plants on earth, build and plumb the critical zone (CZ) in ways that we do not yet understand. To encourage exploration of the character and implications of interactions between trees and soil in the CZ, we propose nine hypotheses that can be tested at diverse settings. The hypotheses are roughly divided into those about the architecture (building) and those about the water (plumbing) in the CZ, but the two functions are intertwined. Depending upon one's disciplinary background, many of the nine hypotheses listed below may appear obviously true or obviously false. (1) Tree roots can only physically penetrate and biogeochemically comminute the immobile substrate underlying mobile soil where that underlying substrate is fractured or pre-weathered. (2) In settings where the thickness of weathered material, H, is large, trees primarily shape the CZ through biogeochemical reactions within the rooting zone. (3) In forested uplands, the thickness of mobile soil, h, can evolve toward a steady state because of feedbacks related to root disruption and tree throw. (4) In settings where h -H and the rates of uplift and erosion are low, the uptake of phosphorus into trees is buffered by the fine-grained fraction of the soil, and the ultimate source of this phosphorus is dust. (5) In settings of limited water availability, trees maintain the highest length density of functional roots at depths where water can be extracted over most of the growing season with the least amount of energy expenditure. (6) Trees grow the majority of their roots in the zone where the most growth-limiting resource is abundant, but they also grow roots at other depths to forage for other resources and to hydraulically redistribute those resources to depths where they can be taken up more efficiently. (7) Trees rely on matrix water in the unsaturated zone that at times may have an isotopic composition distinct from the gravity-drained water that transits from the hillslope to groundwater and streamflow. (8) Mycorrhizal fungi can use matrix water directly, but trees can only use this water by accessing it indirectly through the fungi. (9) Even trees growing well above the valley floor of a catchment can directly affect stream chemistry where changes in permeability near the rooting zone promote intermittent zones of water saturation and downslope flow of water to the stream. By testing these nine hypotheses, we will generate important new cross-disciplinary insights that advance CZ science.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5115-5142
Number of pages28
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 17 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements. This paper resulted from a workshop on Trees in the CZ funded by NSF EAR 13-31726 (PI: SL Brantley) and NSF ICER-1445246 SAVI: Crossing the Boundaries of Critical Zone Science with a Virtual Institute. The workshop was facilitated by J. Williams, the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, and Pennsylvania State University’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. Authors were drawn from the 29 members of the workshop, representing 15 institutions and 8 critical zone observatories. Other workshop members are acknowledged: H. Barnard, M. Green, C. Riebe, W. Silver, K. Brubaker, K. Davis, K. Gaines, Y. Zhang, L. Hill, Y. He, X. Gu, W. Zhi, and H. Kim. C. Bao is acknowledged for Fig. 5 and L. Radville for help with Fig. 1. H. Lin was consulted about macropores. D. L. Karwan acknowledges NSF EAR 1144760, S. A. Papuga acknowledges NSF EAR-1255013 and NSF EAR 1331408, J. A. Marshall acknowledges NSF-1452694, S. E. Godsey acknowledges NSF EAR 1331872, and D. M. Eissenstat acknowledges DOE-TES DE-SC0012003.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Author(s).


Dive into the research topics of 'Reviews and syntheses: On the roles trees play in building and plumbing the critical zone'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this