Current models of vegetation pattern formation rely on a system of weakly nonlinear reaction–diffusion equations that are coupled by their source terms. While these equations, which are used to describe a spatiotemporal planar evolution of biomass and soil water, qualitatively capture the emergence of various types of vegetation patterns in arid environments, they are phenomenological and have a limited predictive power. We ameliorate these limitations by deriving the vertically averaged Richards’ equation to describe flow (as opposed to “diffusion”) of water in partially saturated soils. This establishes conditions under which this nonlinear equation reduces to its weakly nonlinear reaction–diffusion counterpart used in the previous models, thus relating their unphysical parameters (e.g., diffusion coefficient) to the measurable soil properties (e.g., hydraulic conductivity) used to parameterize the Richards equation. Our model is valid for both flat and sloping landscapes and can handle arbitrary topography and boundary conditions. The result is a model that relates the environmental conditions (e.g., precipitation rate, runoff and soil properties) to formation of multiple patterns observed in nature (such as stripes, labyrinth and spots).
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