Impacts of moss-dominated biocrusts on rainwater infiltration, vertical water flow, and surface soil evaporation in drylands

Shenglong Li, Matthew A. Bowker, Bo Xiao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Globally widespread biocrusts form a “living skin” on most dryland soils, helping govern fundamental ecosystem functions, particularly hydrological processes. However, the underlying mechanisms of biocrust effects on soil water infiltration and evaporation are still controversial. Biocrusts possibly regulate infiltration and evaporation due to their unique physicochemical properties and influence on surface soil moisture (θ), and these assumptions were verified in this study conducted on the Loess Plateau of China. The differences in vertical soil moisture distribution and flow patterns of infiltration water between moss-dominated biocrusts and bare soil were investigated through dye tracing experiments. The evaporation characteristics of biocrusts and bare soil were also obtained by weighing micro-lysimeters in both simulated and in-situ experiments. Results showed that biocrusts retarded deep soil water infiltration below ∼ 15 cm and significantly (F = 48.15, P < 0.001) decreased the stained area ratio (percentage of stained area to total area at the same soil depth) by 16% in contrast to bare soil. Because the infiltrated water was mostly retained in shallow soil (0–15 cm) in biocrust-covered soil, their ratios of low interaction flow (stained path width < 20 mm) and high interaction flow (20 mm < stained path width < 200 mm) were significantly higher (F ≥ 7.82, P ≤ 0.007) than those of bare soil. After the dye tracing experiments, the biocrusts modestly increased θ by 17% throughout the soil profile (0–50 cm), but they remarkably increased θ by 33%−78% in the top 20 cm of soil. Additionally, the biocrusts increased soil daily evaporation rate (E) by 27%−39% (with only the exception of the beginning) and the cumulative evaporation amount by 14% in contrast to bare soil over an 8-day field measurement. More importantly, the biocrust-affected soil properties, such as the contents of fine particles and organic matter, as well as saturated water content and field capacity, were closely correlated with E (|ρ| ≥ 0.52, P ≤ 0.08). Consequently, it was concluded that biocrusts restrict the depth of rainwater infiltration and increase surface θ, which may greatly enhance surface soil evaporation in the Chinese Loess Plateau.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number128176
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Biological soil crust
  • Loess Plateau
  • Micro-lysimeter
  • Soil field capacity
  • Soil moisture
  • Water flow pattern

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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