Precipitation amount and event size interact to reduce ecosystem functioning during dry years in a mesic grassland

TitlePrecipitation amount and event size interact to reduce ecosystem functioning during dry years in a mesic grassland
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsFelton, AJ, Slette, IJ, Smith, MD, Knapp, AK
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Accession NumberKNZ002008

Ongoing intensification of the hydrological cycle is altering rainfall regimes by increasing the frequency of extreme wet and dry years and the size of individual rainfall events. Despite long‐standing recognition of the importance of precipitation amount and variability for most terrestrial ecosystem processes, we lack understanding of their interactive effects on ecosystem functioning. We quantified this interaction in native grassland by experimentally eliminating temporal variability in growing season rainfall over a wide range of precipitation amounts, from extreme wet to dry conditions. We contrasted the rain use efficiency (RUE) of above‐ground net primary productivity (ANPP) under conditions of experimentally reduced versus naturally high rainfall variability using a 32‐year precipitation–ANPP dataset from the same site as our experiment. We found that increased growing season rainfall variability can reduce RUE and thus ecosystem functioning by as much as 42% during dry years, but that such impacts weaken as years become wetter. During low precipitation years, RUE is lowest when rainfall event sizes are relatively large, and when a larger proportion of total rainfall is derived from large events. Thus, a shift towards precipitation regimes dominated by fewer but larger rainfall events, already documented over much of the globe, can be expected to reduce the functioning of mesic ecosystems primarily during drought, when ecosystem processes are already compromised by low water availability.