, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 308-319

Altering Rainfall Timing and Quantity in a Mesic Grassland Ecosystem: Design and Performance of Rainfall Manipulation Shelters

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Abstract

Global climate change is predicted to alter growing season rainfall patterns, potentially reducing total amounts of growing season precipitation and redistributing rainfall into fewer but larger individual events. Such changes may affect numerous soil, plant, and ecosystem properties in grasslands and ultimately impact their productivity and biological diversity. Rainout shelters are useful tools for experimental manipulations of rainfall patterns, and permanent fixed-location shelters were established in 1997 to conduct the Rainfall Manipulation Plot study in a mesic tallgrass prairie ecosystem in northeastern Kansas. Twelve 9 x 14–m fixed-location rainfall manipulation shelters were constructed to impose factorial combinations of 30% reduced rainfall quantity and 50% greater interrainfall dry periods on 6 x 6–m plots, to examine how altered rainfall regimes may affect plant species composition, nutrient cycling, and above- and belowground plant growth dynamics. The shelters provided complete control of growing season rainfall patterns, whereas effects on photosynthetic photon flux density, nighttime net radiation, and soil temperature generally were comparable to other similar shelter designs. Soil and plant responses to the first growing season of rainfall manipulations (1998) suggested that the interval between rainfall events may be a primary driver in grassland ecosystem responses to altered rainfall patterns. Aboveground net primary productivity, soil CO2 flux, and flowering duration were reduced by the increased interrainfall intervals and were mostly unaffected by reduced rainfall quantity. The timing of rainfall events and resulting temporal patterns of soil moisture relative to critical times for microbial activity, biomass accumulation, plant life histories, and other ecological properties may regulate longer-term responses to altered rainfall patterns.