Effects of compounded precipitation pattern intensification and drought occur belowground in a mesic grassland

TitleEffects of compounded precipitation pattern intensification and drought occur belowground in a mesic grassland
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsSlette, IJ, Blair, JM, Fay, PA, Smith, MD, Knapp, AK

Climate change is altering precipitation regimes globally, with expectations of intensified precipitation patterns (for example, larger but fewer rainfall events) and more frequent and extreme drought. Both aspects of precipitation change can impact ecosystem function individually, but it is more likely that they will occur in combination. In a central US mesic grassland, we imposed an extreme 2-year drought (growing season precipitation reduced by 66%) on plots with a long-term (16-year) history of exposure to either ambient or intensified precipitation patterns (average threefold increase in event size and threefold decrease in event number during the growing season). While this intensified pattern did not alter total precipitation amount, it generally led to ecosystem responses consistent with a drier environment (for example, reduced soil moisture, aboveground net primary production (ANPP), and soil CO2 flux, but little evidence for altered root biomass). Surprisingly, this history of intensified precipitation patterns did not affect the response of ANPP to the subsequent extreme drought. In contrast, previous exposure to intensified precipitation patterns reduced root production and muted soil CO2 flux responses to rainfall events during drought. Reduced root production in plots experiencing compounded precipitation extremes was driven not by the dominant C4 grass species, Andropogon gerardii, but collectively by the subdominant species in the plant community. Overall, our results reveal that compound changes in precipitation patterns and amount affected this grassland in ways that were less apparent (that is, belowground) than responses to either change individually and significantly reduced ecosystem carbon uptake.