Effect of precipitation variability on net primary production and soil respiration in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland

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Precipitation regimes are predicted to become more variable with more extreme rainfall events punctuated by longer intervening dry periods. Water-limited ecosystems are likely to be highly responsive to altered precipitation regimes. The bucket model predicts that increased precipitation variability will reduce soil moisture stress and increase primary productivity and soil respiration in aridland ecosystems. To test this hypothesis, we experimentally altered the size and frequency of precipitation events during the summer monsoon (July through September) in 2007 and 2008 in a northern Chihuahuan Desert grassland in central New Mexico, USA. Treatments included (1) ambient rain, (2) ambient rain plus one 20 mm rain event each month, and (3) ambient rain plus four 5 mm rain events each month. Throughout two monsoon seasons, we measured soil temperature, soil moisture content (Θ), soil respiration (Rs), along with leaf-level photosynthesis (Anet), predawn leaf water potential (ψpd), and seasonal aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) of the dominant C4 grass, Bouteloua eriopoda. Treatment plots receiving a single large rainfall event each month maintained significantly higher seasonal soil Θ which corresponded with a significant increase in Rs and ANPP of B. eriopoda when compared with plots receiving multiple small events. Because the strength of these patterns differed between years, we propose a modification of the bucket model in which both the mean and variance of soil water change as a consequence of interannual variability from 1 year to the next. Our results demonstrate that aridland ecosystems are highly sensitive to increased precipitation variability, and that more extreme precipitation events will likely have a positive impact on some aridland ecosystem processes important for the carbon cycle.

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