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Semiarid ecosystem sensitivity to precipitation extremes: weak evidence for vegetation constraints

Felton, Andrew J., Zavislan‐Pullaro, Sam, Smith, Melinda D.
Ecology 2019 v.100 no.2 pp. e02572
arid lands, ecosystems, forbs, grasslands, growing season, meteorological data, net primary productivity, plant growth, prediction, semiarid zones, soil respiration
In semiarid regions, vegetation constraints on plant growth responses to precipitation (PPT) are hypothesized to place an upper limit on net primary productivity (NPP), leading to predictions of future shifts from currently defined linear to saturating NPP–PPT relationships as increases in both dry and wet PPT extremes occur. We experimentally tested this prediction by imposing a replicated gradient of growing season PPT (GSP, n = 11 levels, n = 4 replicates), ranging from the driest to wettest conditions in the 75‐yr climate record, within a semiarid grassland. We focused on responses of two key ecosystem processes: aboveground NPP (ANPP) and soil respiration (Rₛ). ANPP and Rₛ both exhibited greater relative responses to wet vs. dry GSP extremes, with a linear relationship consistently best explaining the response of both processes to GSP. However, this responsiveness to GSP peaked at moderate levels of extremity for both processes, and declined at the most extreme GSP levels, suggesting that greater sensitivity of ANPP and Rₛ to wet vs. dry conditions may diminish under increased magnitudes of GSP extremes. Underlying these responses was rapid plant compositional change driven by increased forb production and cover as GSP transitioned to extreme wet conditions. This compositional shift increased the magnitude of ANPP responses to wet GSP extremes, as well as the slope and variability explained in the ANPP–GSP relationship. Our findings suggest that rapid plant compositional change may act as a mediator of semiarid ecosystem responses to predicted changes in GSP extremes.