Tropical forests are threatened by intensifying natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes. Disturbances reduce tree cover and leave the organic topsoil vulnerable to erosion processes, but when resources are still abundant forests usually recover.
Across the tropics, variation in rainfall erosivity – a measure of potential soil exposure to water erosion – indicates that soils in the wetter regions would experience high erosion rates if they were not protected by tree cover. However, twenty-first-century global land cover data reveal that in wet South America tropical tree cover is decreasing and bare soil area is increasing. Here we address the role of soil erosion in a positive feedback mechanism that may persistently alter the functioning of disturbed tropical forests.
Based on an extensive literature review, we propose a conceptual model in which soil erosion reinforces disturbance effects on tropical forests, reducing their resilience with time and increasing their likelihood of being trapped in an alternative vegetation state that is persistently vulnerable to erosion. We present supporting field evidence from two distinct forests in central Amazonia that have been repeatedly disturbed. Overall, the strength of the erosion feedback depends on disturbance types and regimes, as well as on local environmental conditions, such as topography, flooding, and soil fertility. As disturbances intensify in tropical landscapes, we argue that the erosion feedback may help to explain why certain forests persist in a degraded state and often undergo critical functional shifts.
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