, Volume 137, Issue 2, pp 245–251 | Cite as

Productivity responses to altered rainfall patterns in a C4-dominated grassland

  • Philip A. FayEmail author
  • Jonathan D. Carlisle
  • Alan K. Knapp
  • John M. Blair
  • Scott L. Collins
Ecosystems Ecology


Rainfall variability is a key driver of ecosystem structure and function in grasslands worldwide. Changes in rainfall patterns predicted by global climate models for the central United States are expected to cause lower and increasingly variable soil water availability, which may impact net primary production and plant species composition in native Great Plains grasslands. We experimentally altered the timing and quantity of growing season rainfall inputs by lengthening inter-rainfall dry intervals by 50%, reducing rainfall quantities by 30%, or both, compared to the ambient rainfall regime in a native tallgrass prairie ecosystem in northeastern Kansas. Over three growing seasons, increased rainfall variability caused by altered rainfall timing with no change in total rainfall quantity led to lower and more variable soil water content (0–30 cm depth), a ~10% reduction in aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP), increased root to shoot ratios, and greater canopy photon flux density at 30 cm above the soil surface. Lower total ANPP primarily resulted from reduced growth, biomass and flowering of subdominant warm-season C4 grasses while productivity of the dominant C4 grass Andropogon gerardii was relatively unresponsive. In general, vegetation responses to increased soil water content variability were at least equal to those caused by imposing a 30% reduction in rainfall quantity without altering the timing of rainfall inputs. Reduced ANPP most likely resulted from direct effects of soil moisture deficits on root activity, plant water status, and photosynthesis. Altered rainfall regimes are likely to be an important element of climate change scenarios in this grassland, and the nature of interactions with other climate change elements remains a significant challenge for predicting ecosystem responses to climate change.


Climate change Konza Prairie Net primary productivity Precipitation Soil moisture 



Brett Danner, Chris Harper, Michelle Lett, Ken McCarron, Roger Baldwin, Scott Heeke, John Kraft and Jen Olivigni ably performed the field and laboratory work, and Jim Larkins, Dennis Mossman, and Tom VanSlyke supplied essential support during construction of the rainout shelters. This research was supported by the USDA National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program, the Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Program (BER), U.S. Department of Energy, through the Great Plains Regional Center of the National Institute for Global Environmental Change (NIGEC) under Cooperative Agreement No. DE-FC03–90ER61010, and the National Science Foundation Konza Long Term Ecological Research program. Contribution number 03-344-J of the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station.


  1. BassiriRad H, Caldwell MM (1992) Root growth, osmotic adjustment and nitrate uptake during and after a period of drought in Artemisia tridentata. Aust J Plant Physiol 19:493–500Google Scholar
  2. BassiriRad H, Tremmel DC, Virginia RA, Reynolds JF, de Soyza AG, Brunell MH (1999) Short-term patterns in water and nitrogen acquisition by two desert shrubs following a simulated summer rain. Plant Ecol 145:27–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Briggs JM, Knapp AK (1995) Interannual variability in primary production in tallgrass prairie: climate, soil moisture, topographic position, and fire as determinants of aboveground biomass. Am J Bot 82:1027–1030Google Scholar
  4. Casper BB, Jackson RB (1997) Plant competition underground. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 28:545–570CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cuomo GJ, Anderson BE, Young LJ (1998) Harvest frequency and burning effects on vigor of native grasses. J Range Manage 51:32–36Google Scholar
  6. Easterling DR, Meehl GA, Parmesan C, Changnon SA, Karl TR, Mearns LO (2000) Climate extremes: observations, modeling, and impacts. Science 289:2068–2074PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Epstein HE, Lauenroth WK, Burke IC, Coffin DP (1997) Productivity patterns of C3 and C4 functional types in the U.S. Great Plains. Ecology 78:722–731Google Scholar
  8. Fay PA, Carlisle JD, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Collins SL (2000) Altering rainfall timing and quantity in a mesic grassland ecosystem: Design and performance of rainfall manipulation shelters. Ecosystems 3:308–319PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Fay PA, Carlisle JD, Danner BN, Lett MS, McCarron JK, Stewart C, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Collins SL (2002) Altered rainfall patterns, gas exchange, and growth in grasses and forbs. Int J Plant Sci 163:549–557CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Freeman CC (1998) The flora of Konza Prairie: a historical review and contemporary patterns. In: Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Hartnett DC, Collins SL (eds) Grassland dynamics : long-term ecological research in tallgrass prairie. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 69–80Google Scholar
  11. Groisman PY, Karl TR, Easterling DR, Knight RW, Jamason PF, Hennessy KJ, Suppiah R, Page CM, Wibig J, Fortuniak K, Razuvaev VN, Douglas A, Forland E, Zhai P-M (1999) Changes in the probability of heavy precipitation: important indicators of climatic change. Climate Change 42:243–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Harper CW (2002) Altered rainfall patterns affect belowground ecosystem processes in tallgrass prairie. M.S. Thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.Google Scholar
  13. Hayes DC, Seastedt TR (1987) Root dynamics of tallgrass prairie in wet and dry years. Can J Bot 65:787–791Google Scholar
  14. Hillel D (1987) The efficient use of water in irrigation. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  15. Hoch GA, Briggs JM, Johnson LC (2002) Assessing the rate, mechanism and consequences of conversion of tallgrass prairie to Juniperus virginiana forest. Ecosystems 6:578–586Google Scholar
  16. Jackson RB, Canadell J, Ehleringer JR, Mooney HA, Sala OE, Schulze ED (1996) A global analysis of root distributions for terrestrial biomes. Oecologia 108:389–411Google Scholar
  17. Joslin JD, Wolfe MH, Hanson PJ (2000) Effects of altered water regimes on forest root systems. New Phytol 147:117–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Knapp AK (1984) Water relations and growth of three grasses during wet and drought years in a tallgrass prairie. Oecologia 65:35–43Google Scholar
  19. Knapp AK, Medina E (1999) Success of C4 photosynthesis in the field: lessons from communities dominated by C4 plants. In: Sage RF, Monson RK (eds) C4 plant biology. Academic Press, New York, USA, pp 251–283Google Scholar
  20. Knapp AK, Smith MD (2001) Variation among biomes in temporal dynamics of aboveground primary production. Science 291:481–484PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Knapp AK, Hamerlynck EP, Owensby CE (1993) Photosynthetic and water relations responses to elevated CO2 in the C4 grass Andropogon gerardii. Int J Plant Sci 154:459–466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Blair JM, Turner CL (1998) Patterns and controls of aboveground net primary production in tallgrass prairie. In: Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Hartnett DC, Collins SL (eds) Grassland dynamics: long-term ecological research in tallgrass prairie. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 193–221Google Scholar
  23. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Koelliker JK (2001) Frequency and extent of water limitation to primary production in a mesic temperate grassland. Ecosystems 4:19–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Knapp AK, Fay PA, Blair JM, Collins SL, Smith MD, Carlisle JD, Harper CW, Danner BT, Lett MS, McCarron JK (2002) Rainfall variability, carbon cycling, and plant species diversity in a mesic grassland. Science 298:2202–2205CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Küchler AW (1974) A new vegetation map of Kansas. Ecology 55:586–604Google Scholar
  26. Lane DR, Coffin DP, Lauenroth WK (1998) Effects of soil texture and precipitation on above-ground net primary productivity and vegetation structure across the Central Grassland region of the United States. J Veg Sci 9:239–250Google Scholar
  27. Oesterheld M, Loreti J, Semmartin M, Paruelo JM (1999) Grazing, fire, and climate effects on primary productivity of grasslands and savannas. In: Walker LR (ed) Ecosystems of disturbed ground. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 287–306Google Scholar
  28. Owensby CE, Ham JM, Knapp AK, Bremer D, Auen LM (1997) Water vapour fluxes and their impact under elevated CO2 in a C4 tallgrass prairie. Global Change Biol 3:189–195Google Scholar
  29. Pearcy RW (1990) Sunflecks and photosynthesis in plant canopies. Annu Rev Plant Physiol Plant Mol Biol 41:421–453Google Scholar
  30. Reynolds JF, Virginia RA, Kemp PR, de Soyza AG, Tremmel DC (1999) Impact of drought on desert shrubs: effects of seasonality and degree of resource island development. Ecol Monogr 69:69–106Google Scholar
  31. Saeed IAM, El-Nadi AH (1998) Forage sorghum yield and water use efficiency under variable irrigation. Irrig Sci 18:67–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sala OE (2001) Temperate grasslands. In: Chapin FS III, Sala OE, Huber-Sannwald E (eds) Global biodiversity in a changing environment. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New York, pp 121–138Google Scholar
  33. Sala OE, Parton WJ, Joyce LA, Lauenroth WK (1988) Primary production of the central grassland region of the United States. Ecology 69:40–45Google Scholar
  34. Sala OE, Golluscio RA, Lauenroth WK, Soriano A (1989) Resource partitioning between shrubs and grasses in the Patagonian steppe. Oecologia 81:501–505Google Scholar
  35. Seagle SW, McNaughton SJ (1993) Simulated effects of precipitation and nitrogen on Serengeti grassland productivity. Biogeochemistry 22:157–178Google Scholar
  36. Senock RS, Ham JM (1995) Measurements of water use by prairie grasses with heat balance sap flow gauges. J Range Manage 48:150–158Google Scholar
  37. Silletti AM, Knapp AK (2001) Responses of the codominant grassland species Andropogon gerardii and Sorghastrum nutans to long-term manipulations of nitrogen and water. Am Midl Nat 145:159–167Google Scholar
  38. Silvertown J, Dodd ME, McConway K, Potts J, Crawley MJ (1994) Rainfall, biomass variation, and community composition in the Park Grass Experiment. Ecology 75:2430–2437Google Scholar
  39. Sims PL, Singh JS, Lauenroth WK (1978) The structure and function of ten western North American grasslands. I. Abiotic and vegetational characteristics. J Ecol 66:251–285Google Scholar
  40. Svejcar TJ, Angell RF, Miller RF (1999) Fixed-location rain shelters for studying precipitation effects on rangelands. J Arid Environ 42:187–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Topp GC, Davis JL, Annan AP (1980) Electromagnetic determination of soil water content: measurement in coaxial transmission lines. Water Resour Res 16:574–582Google Scholar
  42. Turner CL, Blair JM, Schartz RJ, Neel JC (1997) Soil N and plant responses to fire, topography, and supplemental N in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 78:1832–1843Google Scholar
  43. Volk M, Niklaus PA, Körner C (2000) Soil moisture effects determine CO2 responses of grassland species. Oecologia 125:380–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Weaver JE (1968) Prairie plants and their environment: a fifty-year study in the Midwest. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Neb.Google Scholar
  45. Weltzin JF, McPherson GR (2000) Implications of precipitation redistribution for shifts in temperate savanna ecotones. Ecology 81:1902–1913Google Scholar
  46. Williams KJ, Wilsey BJ, McNaughton SJ, Banyikwa FF (1998) Temporally variable rainfall does not limit yields of Serengeti grasses. Oikos 81:463–470Google Scholar
  47. Wraith JM, Wright CK (1998) Soil water and root growth. HortScience 33:951–959Google Scholar
  48. Wraith JM, Baker JM, Blake TK (1995) Water uptake resumption following soil drought: a comparison among four barley genotypes. J Exp Bot 46:873–880Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip A. Fay
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Jonathan D. Carlisle
    • 1
  • Alan K. Knapp
    • 1
  • John M. Blair
    • 1
  • Scott L. Collins
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of BiologyKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA
  2. 2.Natural Resources Research InstituteUniversity of Minnesota DuluthDuluthUSA

Personalised recommendations