, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 913-925
Date: 19 Mar 2010

Spatial versus temporal variation in precipitation in a semiarid ecosystem

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Spatial and temporal variations in precipitation are central features of semiarid ecosystems, influencing patterns of plant productivity and the distribution of native fauna. Although temporal variation in precipitation has been studied extensively, far less is known about the spatial scale and pattern of precipitation variability in semiarid regions. I used long-term precipitation records to examine spatial variation across the 63 km2 Central Plains Experimental Range in northeastern Colorado, and across the 117,000 km2 region of shortgrass steppe in eastern Colorado. Relative to temporal variation, spatial variation was low at scales <10 km, increased linearly across scales of 40–120 km, and was nearly equal in magnitude to temporal variation across distances of 120–160 km. Although I hypothesized that most spatial variation would be generated by early-summer convective thunderstorms in June, I found that the magnitude and spatial pattern of variation was similar for precipitation received in June compared to cumulative precipitation received during the full growing season. The degree of spatial autocorrelation in precipitation across all distances that I evaluated was similar for drought, dry, above-average and wet years. Across distances of 10–120 km, spatial variation within a single growing season was approximately two times greater than spatial variation in long-term mean growing-season precipitation, indicating spatial shifting in the locations of patches of high and low precipitation over multiple years. Overall, these findings suggest spatial variation at scales of 10–160 km may have been an important factor influencing vegetation patterns and migratory fauna of the shortgrass steppe, and have implications for livestock producers and future assessments of climate change.