, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 139-150

Response of the Shortgrass Steppe to Changes in Rainfall Seasonality

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Studies in temperate grassland ecosystems have shown that differences in composition of C3 and C4 plant functional types can have important influences on ecosystem pools and processes. We used a plant community dynamics model (STEPPE) linked to a biogeochemical cycling model (CENTURY) to determine how ecosystem properties in shortgrass steppe are influenced by plant functional type composition. Because of phenological differences between C3 and C4 plants, we additionally simulated the effects of precipitation seasonality on plant communities and examined how C3 and C4 composition interacts with precipitation to affect ecosystems. The model output suggests that differences in C3 and C4 composition can lead to differences in soil organic carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) within 1000 simulation years. Soil organic C and N (g C and N m 2 to 0.2-m depth) were least in a 100% C4 community compared with a 100% C3 community and a mixed C3–C4 community. A change in the time of maximum precipitation from summer to spring in a simulated shortgrass steppe slightly favored C3 plants over C4 plants. The proportion of total net primary production accounted for by C3 plants increased from 21% to 25% after 200 years, when 90 mm of precipitation was switched from summer to spring. Soil organic matter (SOM) was relatively stable in the C4-dominated communities with respect to changes in precipitation seasonality, whereasSOM in the C3 community was sensitive to precipitation seasonality changes. These results suggest an important interaction between plant community composition and precipitation seasonality on SOM, with phenology playing a key role.