, Volume 191, Issue 3, pp 673–683 | Cite as

Plant growth and aboveground production respond differently to late-season deluges in a semi-arid grassland

  • Alison K. PostEmail author
  • Alan K. Knapp
Ecosystem ecology – original research


Semi-arid ecosystems are strongly water-limited and typically quite responsive to changes in precipitation amount and event size. In the C4-dominated shortgrass steppe of the Central US, previous experiments suggest that large rain events more effectively stimulate plant growth and aboveground net primary production (ANPP) than an equal amount of precipitation from smaller events. Responses to naturally occurring large events have generally been consistent with experimental results, with the exception of large events occurring later in the growing season (e.g., August). These have been reported as less effective at increasing net C uptake, despite temperatures optimal for C4 plant growth. Since atmospheric warming is increasing the frequency of statistically extreme rain events (deluges) throughout the growing season, how late-season deluges affect semi-arid ecosystems remains to be resolved. We applied deluges in August of three sizes (1.0–2.5 times average August precipitation) to assess the potential for late-season deluges to stimulate plant growth and ANPP. These late-season deluges led to significant “green-up” of this grassland, with new leaf production, and an increase in flowering of the dominant grass species. Further, these responses increased as deluge size increased, suggesting that larger or multiple deluges may lead to even greater growth responses. However, despite strong plant-level responses, no increase in ANPP was measured. Our results confirm that aboveground plant growth in the C4-dominated shortgrass steppe does respond to late-season deluges; however, if there is an increase in plant biomass, net accumulation aboveground is minimal at this time of year.


ANPP Climate change Greenness Precipitation Shortgrass steppe 



Funding for this research was provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF) awarded to A. Post and a United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NSF NIFA) Award # 2018-67019-27849. The authors thank the USDA-ARS Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER) for providing space and logistical support for this experiment.

Author contribution statement

AKP and AKK conceived and designed the experiment. AKP conducted the fieldwork and analyzed the data. AKP wrote the initial draft of the manuscript and both AKP and AKK edited the subsequent versions.


  1. Aguado-Santacruz GA, Leyva-López NE, Pérez-Márquez KI, García-Moya E, Arredondo-Moreno JT, Martínez-Soriano JP (2004) Genetic variability of Bouteloua gracilis populations differing in forage production at the southernmost part of the North American Graminetum. Plant Ecol 170:287–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahlstrom A, Raupach MR, Schurgers G, Smith B, Arneth A, Jung M, Reichstein M, Canadell JG, Friedlingstein P, Jain AK, Kato E, Poulter B, Sitch S, Stocker BD, Viovy N, Wang YP, Wiltshire A, Zaehle S, Zeng N (2015) The dominant role of semi-arid ecosystems in the trend and variability of the land CO2 sink. Science 348:895–899PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  3. Anten NPR, Miyazawa K, Hikosaka K, Nagashima H, Hirose T (1998) Leaf nitrogen distribution in relation to leaf age and photon flux density in dominant and subordinate plants in dense stands of a dicotyledonous herb. Oecologia 113:314–324PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  4. Arzani H, Zohdi M, Fish E, Zahedi Amiri GH, Nikkhah A, Wester D (2004) Phenological effects on forage quality of five grass species. J Range Manag 57(6):624–629CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bai Y, Wu J, Xing Q, Pan Q, Huang J, Yang D, Han X (2008) Primary production and rain use efficiency across a precipitation gradient on the Mongolian plateau. Ecology 89(8):2140–2153PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Browning DM, Karl JW, Morin D, Richardson AD, Tweedie CE (2017) Phenocams bridge the gap between field and satellite observations in an arid grassland ecosystem. Remote Sens 9(10):1071CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burke IC, Mosier AR, Hook PB, Milchunas DG, Barrett JE, Vinton MA, McCulley RL, Kaye JP, Gill RA, Epstein HE, Kelly RH, Parton WJ, Yonker CM, Lowe P, Lauenroth WK (2008) Soil organic matter and nutrient dynamics of shortgrass steppe ecosystems. In: Lauenroth WK, Burke IC (eds) Ecology of the shortgrass steppe. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 306–341Google Scholar
  8. Craine JM, Towne EG, Nippert JB (2010) Climate controls on grass culm production over a quarter century in a tallgrass prairie. Ecology 91(7):2132–2140PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Dalgleish HJ, Hartnett DC (2006) Below-ground bud banks increase along a precipitation gradient of the North American Great Plains: a test of the meristem limitation hypothesis. New Phytol 171(1):81–89PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  10. Derner JD, Hart RH (2007) Grazing-induced modifications to peak standing crop in northern Mixed-Grass Prairie. Rangel Ecol Manag 60(3):270–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Derner JD, Hess BW, Olson RA, Schuman GE (2008) Functional group and species responses to precipitation in three semi-arid rangeland ecosystems. Arid Land Res Manag 22(1):81–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dickinson CE, Dodd JL (1976) Phenological pattern in the shortgrass prairie. Am Midl Nat 96(2):367–378CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diffenbaugh NS, Giorgi F, Pal JS (2008) Climate change hotspots in the United States. Geophys Res Lett 35(16):1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Donat MG, Lowry AL, Alexander LV, O’Gorman PA, Maher N (2016) More extreme precipitation in the world’s dry and wet regions. Nat Clim Chang 6:508–514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Easterling DR, Meehl GA, Parmesan C, Changnon SA, Karl TR, Mearns LO (2000) Climate extremes: observations, modeling, and impacts. Science 289:2068–2074CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Filippa G, Cremonese E, Migliavacca M, Galvagno M, Forkel M, Wingate L, Tomelleri E, Morra Di Cella U, Richardson AD (2016) Phenopix: a R package for image-based vegetation phenology. Agric For Meteorol 220:141–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Frank DA (2007) Drought effects on above- and belowground production of a grazed temperate grassland ecosystem. Oecologia 152(1):131–139PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  18. Giuliani AL, Kelly EF, Knapp AK (2014) Geographic variation in growth and phenology of two dominant central US grasses: consequences for climate change. J Plant Ecol 7(3):211–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Groisman PY, Knight RW (2008) Prolonged dry episodes over the conterminous United States: new tendencies emerging during the last 40 years. J Clim 21(9):1850–1862CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Groisman PY, Knight RW, Karl TR (2012) Changes in intense precipitation over the Central United States. J Hydrometeorol 13(1):47–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hartnett DC, Fay PA (1998) Plant populations: patterns and processes. In: Knapp AK, Briggs LM, Hartnett DC, Collins SL (eds) Grassland dynamics: long-term ecological research in tallgrass prairie. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 81–100Google Scholar
  22. Heisler-white JL, Knapp AK, Kelly EF (2008) Increasing precipitation event size increases aboveground net primary productivity in a semi-arid grassland. Oecologia 158(1):129–140PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  23. Heisler-White JL, Blair JM, Kelly EF, Harmoney K, Knapp AK (2009) Contingent productivity responses to more extreme rainfall regimes across a grassland biome. Glob Chang Biol 15(12):2894–2904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hermance JF, Augustine DJ, Derner JD (2015) Quantifying characteristic growth dynamics in a semi-arid grassland ecosystem by predicting short-term NDVI phenology from daily rainfall: a simple four parameter coupled-reservoir model. Int J Remote Sens 36(22):5637–5663CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Homolová L, Malenovský Z, Clevers JGPW, García-Santos G, Schaepman ME (2013) Review of optical-based remote sensing for plant trait mapping. Ecol Complex 15:1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Huntington TG (2006) Evidence for intensification of the global water cycle: review and synthesis. J Hydrol 319:83–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Huxman TE, Smith MD, Fay PA, Knapp AK, Shaw MR, Loik ME, Smith SD, Tissue DT, Zak JC, Weltzin JF, Pockman WT, Sala OE, Haddad B, Harte J, Koch GW, Schwinning S, Small EE, Williams DC (2004a) Convergence across biomes to common rain use efficiency. Nature 429:651–654PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Huxman TE, Snyder KA, Tissue D, Leffler AJ, Ogle K, Pockman WT, Sandquist DR, Potts DL, Schwinning S (2004b) Precipitation pulses and carbon fluxes in semiarid and arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141(2):254–268PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  29. IPCC (2013) Summary for policymakers. In: Stocker TF, Qin D, Plattner GK, Tignor MMB, Allen SK, Boschung J, Nauels A, Xia Y, Bex V, Midgley PM (eds) Climate change 2013. The physical science basis. Working group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  30. Janssen E, Wuebbles DJ, Kunkel KE, Olsen SC, Goodman A (2014) Observational and model-based trends and projections of extreme precipitation over the contiguous United States. AGU Public Earth Future 2(2):99–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Jaramillo VJ, Detling JK (1992) Small-scale heterogeneity in a semi-arid north american grassland. I. Tillering, N uptake and retranslocation in simulated urine patches. J Appl Ecol 29(1):1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Jentsch A, Beierkuhnlein C (2008) Research frontiers in climate change: effects of extreme meteorological events on ecosystems. Geoscience 340:621–628CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Knapp AK, Smith MD (2001) Variation among biomes in temporal dynamics of aboveground primary production. Science 291:481–484CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Childers DL, Sala OE (2007) Estimating aboveground net primary production in grassland- and herbaceous-dominated ecosystems. In: Fahey TJ, Knapp AK (eds) Principles and standards for measuring primary production. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 27–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Knapp AK, Beier C, Briske DD, Classen AT, Luo Y, Reichstein M, Smith MD, Smith SD, Bell JE, Fay PA, Heisler JL, Leavitt SW, Sherry R, Smith B, Weng E (2008) Consequences of more extreme precipitation regimes for terrestrial ecosystems. Bioscience 58(9):811–821CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Knight DH (1973) Leaf area dynamics of a shortgrass prairie in Colorado. Ecology 54(4):891–896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kunkel KE, Karl TR, Brooks H, Kossin J, Lawrimore JH, Arndt D, Bosart L, Changnon D, Cutter SL, Doesken N, Emanuel K, Groisman PY, Katz RW, Knutson T, O’brien J J, Paciorek CJ, Peterson TC, Redmond K, Robinson D, Trapp J, Vose R, Weaver S, Wehner M, Wolter K, Wuebbles D (2013) Monitoring and understanding trends in extreme storms: state of knowledge. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 94(4):499–514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. La Pierre KJ, Yuan S, Chang CC, Avolio ML, Hallett LM, Schreck T, Smith MD (2011) Explaining temporal variation in above-ground productivity in a mesic grassland: the role of climate and flowering. J Ecol 99:1250–1262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pierre KJL, Blumenthal DM, Brown CS, Klein JA, Smith MD (2016) Drivers of variation in aboveground net primary productivity and plant community composition differ across a broad precipitation gradient. Ecosystems 19:521–533CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lauenroth WK, Sala OE (1992) Long-term forage production of North American shortgrass steppe. Ecol Appl 2(4):397–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lauenroth WK, Sala OE, Coffin DP, Kirchner TB (1994) The Importance of soil water in the recruitment of Bouteloua gracilis in the shortgrass steppe. Ecol Appl 4(4):741–749CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mallakpour I, Villarini G (2017) Analysis of changes in the magnitude, frequency, and seasonality of heavy precipitation over the contiguous USA. Theor Appl Climatol 130:345–363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Migliavacca M, Galvagno M, Cremonese E, Rossini M, Meroni M, Sonnentag O, Cogliati S, Manca G, Diotri F, Busetto L, Cescatti A, Colombo R, Fava F, Di Cella UM, Pari E, Siniscalco C, Richardson AD (2011) Using digital repeat photography and eddy covariance data to model grassland phenology and photosynthetic CO2 uptake. Agric For Meteorol 151(10):1325–1337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Milchunas DG, Lauenroth WK (1989) Dimensional distribution of plant biomass in relation to grazing and topography in the shortgrass steppe. Oikos 55(1):82–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Milchunas DG, Lauenroth WK, Chapman PL, Kazempour MK (1989) Effects of grazing, topography, and precipitation on the structure of a semiarid grassland. Vegetation 80:11–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Milchunas DG, Lauenroth WK, Burke IC, Detling JK (2008) Effects of grazing on vegetation. In: Lauenroth WK, Burke IC (eds) Ecology of the shortgrass steppe. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 389–446Google Scholar
  47. Monier E, Gao X (2015) Climate change impacts on extreme events in the United States: an uncertainty analysis. Clim Change 131:67–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moore LM, Lauenroth WK (2017) Differential effects of temperature and precipitation on early-vs. late-flowering species. Ecosphere 8(5):e01819CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Morgan JA, Parton W, Derner JD, Gilmanov TG, Smith DP (2016) Importance of early season conditions and grazing on carbon dioxide fluxes in Colorado shortgrass steppe. Rangel Ecol Manag 69(5):342–350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nelson JA, Morgan JA, Lecain DR, Mosier AR, Milchunas DG, Parton WA (2004) Elevated CO2 increases soil moisture and enhances plant water relations in a long-term field study in semi-arid shortgrass steppe of Colorado. Plant Soil 259:169–179CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Noy-Meir I (1973) Desert ecosystems: environment and producers. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 4:25–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Parton W, Morgan J, Smith D, Del Grosso S, Prihodko L, Lecain D, Kelly R, Lutz S (2012) Impact of precipitation dynamics on net ecosystem productivity. Glob Change Biol 18(3):915–927CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Paruelo JM, Epstein HE, Lauenroth WK, Burke IC (1997) ANPP estimates from NDVI for the central grassland region of the United States. Ecology 78(3):953–958CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Pau G, Fuchs F, Sklyar O, Boutros M, Huber W (2010) EBImage—an R package for image processing with applications to cellular phenotypes. Bioinformatics 26(7):979–981PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pinheiro J, Bates D, DebRoy S, Sarkar D, R Core Team (2019) nlme: linear and nonlinear mixed effects models. R package version 3.1-141Google Scholar
  56. Reichmann LG, Sala OE (2014) Differential sensitivities of grassland structural components to changes in precipitation mediate productivity response in a desert ecosystem. Funct Ecol 28(5):1292–1298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Reynolds JF, Ogle K, Kemp PR, Fernández RJ (2004) Modifying the “pulse-reserve” paradigm for deserts of North America: precipitation pulses, soil water, and plant responses. Oecologia 141:194–210PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  58. Sala OE, Lauenroth WK (1982) Small rainfall events: an ecological role in semiarid regions. Oecologia 53:301–304PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  59. Sala OE, Parton WJ, Joyce LA, Lauenroth WK (1988) Primary Production of the central grassland region of the United States. Ecology 69(1):40–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sala OE, Lauenroth WK, Parton WJ (1992) Long-term soil water dynamics in the shortgrass steppe. Ecology 73(4):1175–1181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Samuel MJ (1985) Growth parameter differences between populations of Blue Grama. J Range Manag 38(4):339–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Schwinning S, Sala OE (2004) Hierarchy of responses to resource pulses in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:211–220PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  63. Smith MD (2011) An ecological perspective on extreme climatic events: a synthetic definition and framework to guide future research. J Ecol 99(3):656–663CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Toomey M, Friedl MA, Frolking S, Hufkens K, Klosterman S, Sonnentag O, Baldocchi DD, Bernacchi CJ, Biraud SC, Bohrer G, Brzostek E, Burns SP, Coursolle C, Hollinger DY, Margolis HA, Mccaughey H, Monson RK, Munger JW, Pallardy S, Phillips RP, Torn MS, Wharton S, Zeri M, Richardson AD (2015) Greenness indices from digital cameras predict the timing and seasonal dynamics of canopy-scale photosynthesis. Ecol Appl 25(1):99–115PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  65. Vrieling A, Meroni M, Darvishzadeh R, Skidmore AK, Wang T, Zurita-Milla R, Oosterbeek K, O’Connor B, Paganini M (2018) Vegetation phenology from sentinel-2 and field cameras for a Dutch barrier island. Remote Sens Environ 215:517–529CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wang J, Rich PM, Price KP (2003) Temporal responses of NDVI to precipitation and temperature in the central Great Plains, USA. Int J Remote Sens 24(11):2345–2364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Weltzin JF, Loik ME, Schwinning S, Williams DG, Fay PA, Haddad BM, Harte J, Huxman TE, Knapp AK, Lin G, Pockman WT, Shaw MR, Small EE, Smith MD, Smith SD, Tissue DT, Zak J (2003) Assessing the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential changes in precipitation. Bioscience 53(10):941–952CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Yahdjian L, Sala OE (2002) A rainout shelter design for intercepting different amounts of rainfall. Oecologia 133:95–101PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  69. Yang H, Li J, Yang J, Wang H, Zou J, He J (2014) Effects of nitrogen application rate and leaf age on the distribution pattern of leaf SPAD readings in the rice canopy. PLoS One 9(2):1–11Google Scholar
  70. Zhang H, Wu H, Yu Q, Wang Z, Wei C, Long M, Kattge J, Smith M, Han X (2013) Sampling date, leaf age and root size: implications for the study of plant C:N:P stoichiometry. PLoS One 8(4):1–8Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

Personalised recommendations