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Global-scale shifts in Anthropocene rooting depths pose unexamined consequences for critical zone functioning
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  • Emma Hauser,
  • Pamela L Sullivan,
  • Alejandro N. Flores,
  • Daniel Hirmas,
  • Sharon A Billings
Emma Hauser
University of Kansas

Corresponding Author:emhauser@ku.edu

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Pamela L Sullivan
Oregon State University
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Alejandro N. Flores
Boise State University
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Daniel Hirmas
University of California, Riverside
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Sharon A Billings
University of Kansas
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Rooting depth is an ecosystem trait that determines the extent of soil development and carbon (C) and water cycling. Recent hypotheses propose that human-induced changes to Earth’s biogeochemical cycles propagate deeply due to rooting depth changes from agricultural and climate-induced land cover changes. Yet, the lack of a global-scale quantification of rooting depth responses to human activity limits knowledge of hydrosphere-atmosphere-lithosphere feedbacks in the Anthropocene. Here we use land cover datasets to demonstrate that root depth distributions are changing globally as a consequence of agricultural expansion truncating depths above which 99% of root biomass occurs (D99) by ~60 cm, and woody encroachment linked to anthropogenic climate change extending D99 in other regions by ~38 cm. The net result of these two opposing drivers is a global reduction of D99 by 5%, or ~8 cm, representing a loss of ~11,600 km3 of rooted volume. Projected land cover scenarios in 2100 suggest additional future D99 shallowing of up to 30 cm, generating further losses of rooted volume of ~43,500 km3, values exceeding root losses experienced to date and suggesting that the pace of root shallowing will quicken in the coming century. Losses of Earth’s deepest roots — soil-forming agents — suggest unanticipated changes in fluxes of water, solutes, and C. Two important messages emerge from our analyses: dynamic, human-modified root distributions should be incorporated into earth systems models, and a significant gap in deep root research inhibits accurate projections of future root distributions and their biogeochemical consequences.