An indispensible source of water for arid Succulent Karoo shrubs
Fog and dew in the Succulent Karoo
Ignatious Matimati, Charles Musil, Lincoln Raitt
Fog and dew deposition on
in te Knersvlakte.
f all the
earth’s resources, water is the most fundamentalto life, especially in the arid Succulent Karoo along SouthAfrica’s West Coast where the low average annual rainfallis augmented by substantial amounts of fog generated by the coldBenguela Current of the Atlantic Ocean and nocturnal dew resultingfrom atmospheric water condensation. Fog and dew may provide avital source of moisture for many of the rare succulent shrubs that arelimited to the fog belt along our arid West Coast. Indeed, experimentalfog and dew collection devices placed along South Africa’s West Coasthave shown that fog and dew constitute a considerable portion of the hydrological input which concur with the substantial water yieldsgenerated in established fog water collection projects in Chile andother developing countries.Plants are ideal fog and dew interceptors. Water condenses onleaves and stems, and drips or runs off onto the soil surface where it isabsorbed by plant root systems. It is thought that the leaves of somesucculents such as
species may absorb water vapour directlyfrom a saturated atmosphere or from wet leaf surfaces. However, forboth processes, the pathways of foliar absorption of water are poorlyunderstood and as yet the relevance of fog and dew as sources of moisture for succulent plants in the arid South African ecosystems hasnot been substantiated.Fog and dew frequency and precipitation from them was higherthan rainfall when we measured both at our study sites in theKnersvlakte and at Port Nolloth from July 2007 to June 2008, usingweighing microlysimeters. The total recorded fog and dew netamounts of 252.9 mm year
exceeded those of 149.5 mm year
recorded for rainfall by almost 70%. More fascinating resultswere that where
plants grew in quartz soilsubstrates, they channelled a very high net amount of 460 mm year
, which was more than twice the rainfall amount. This implied thatthese miniature succulents play an active role in trapping fog anddew water sources into the plant-soil system. With the expectedincrease in global temperatures,
is expectedto die in large numbers since it has already reached the maximumrange of temperatures that it can tolerate. We were also keen toknow the contributions of fog and dew to succulent shrubs growingon shale-based soils. Since these succulent shrubs have deeper rootsand bigger canopies to fit in weighing microlysimeters, the mostsuitable alternative technique was of stable hydrogen (2H/H) andoxygen (18O/16O) isotopes.Rain, fog and dew have different hydrogen and oxygen isotopicsignatures or ‘fingerprints’ which can be used to identify which of thesesources of water are used by plants. Numerous studies have confirmedthat fog, a condensate of saturated air close to the earth’s surface, hasa higher proportion of heavy to light hydrogen (2H/H) and oxygen(18O/16O) isotopes than rain, a condensate from saturated air at higherlevels in the atmosphere. Analysis of these proportions of isotopes inplant tissues may therefore provide an indirect measure of the fractionof total precipitation contributed by rain, fog and dew. Leaf tissues areunsuitable for such isotopic assays as there is a greater loss of lighter waterisotopes than heavy isotopes during transpiration and photosynthesis,a feature not apparent in non-photosynthetic water-conducting stemxylem tissues which provide more stable sources of water isotopes.
| SEPTEMBER 2010