Earth’s land surface teems with life. Although the distribution of ecosystems is largely explained by temperature and precipitation, vegetation can vary markedly with little variation in climate. Here we explore the role of bedrock in governing the distribution of forest cover across the Sierra Nevada Batholith, California. Our sites span a narrow range of elevations and thus a narrow range in climate. Yet land cover varies from Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), the largest trees on Earth, to vegetation-free swaths that are visible from space. Meanwhile, underlying bedrock spans nearly the entire compositional range of the granitic core of the western North American cordillera. We explored connections between lithology and vegetation using measurements of bedrock geochemistry and forest productivity. Tree-canopy cover, a proxy for forest productivity, varies by more than an order of magnitude across our sites, changing abruptly at mapped contacts between plutons and correlating with bedrock concentrations of major and minor elements, including the plant-essential nutrient phosphorus. Nutrient-poor areas that lack vegetation and soil erode more than two times slower on average than surrounding, more nutrient-rich, soil-mantled bedrock. This suggests that bedrock geochemistry can influence landscape evolution through an intrinsic limitation on primary productivity. Our results are consistent with widespread bottom-up lithologic control on the distribution and diversity of vegetation in mountainous terrain.
Hahm, W. J. (2013): Bedrock composition regulates ecosystems and landscape evolution in the sierra Nevada Batholith, California . University of Wyoming M.Sc. Thesis.