Hydrological soil properties control tree regrowth after forest disturbance in the forest steppe of central Mongolia
The central Mongolian forest steppe forms a transition between different ecozones and is as such particularly sensitive to environmental changes. It is commonly affected by disturbances such as logging and forest fires. Intensified drought events aggravate stress on the trees that are anyway at their drier limit in the forest steppe. Climate change increases evapotranspiration and reduces the distribution of discontinuous permafrost, which leads to drier soil conditions. The motivation for this study came about through our previous observation that forest stands show great differences with respect to their recovery after disturbance by fire or logging. Sometimes, no regrowth of trees takes place at all. As water availability is the main limiting factor of forest growth in this region, we hypothesised that differences in soil hydrology control the forest recovery pattern. To test this hypothesis, we analysed soil properties under forests, predominantly consisting of Siberian larch (Larix sibirica Ledeb.), in the forest steppe of the northern Khangai Mountains, central Mongolia. We distinguished the following four vegetation categories: (1) near-natural forest (FOR), (2) steppe close to the forest (STE), (3) disturbed forest with regrowth of trees (DWIR), and (4) disturbed forest showing no regrowth of trees (DNOR). A total of 54 soil profiles were described in the field and sampled for soil chemical, physical, and hydrological analysis. We found a significant difference in soil texture between soils under DWIR and DNOR. Sand generally dominated the soil texture, but soils under DWIR had more silt and clay compared to soils under DNOR. Soil pF curves showed that soils under DWIR had higher plant-available field capacity in their uppermost parts than soils under DNOR. In addition, hydraulic conductivity tended to be higher in the uppermost horizons of soils under DWIR compared to their counterparts under DNOR. Chemical properties of the soils under DWIR and DNOR showed no significant differences. We conclude that the differences in post-disturbance tree regrowth are mainly caused by different soil hydrology. High plant-available field capacity is the key factor for forest recovery under semi-arid conditions. High hydraulic conductivity in the uppermost soil horizons can further support tree regrowth because it reduces the evaporation loss and the competition of larch saplings with grasses and herbs for water. Another important factor is human impact, particularly grazing livestock on cleared forest sites, which often keeps seedlings from growing and, thus, inhibits forest recovery. None of the disturbed sites (DWIR and DNOR) had permafrost. We, thus, conclude that permafrost is no major factor for the post-disturbance tree regrowth pattern, although it generally supports tree growth in the forest steppe by preventing meltwater from seasonal ice from seeping below the root zone, thus increasing the water supply in summer.