, Volume 177, Issue 4, pp 949–957 | Cite as

Differential sensitivity to regional-scale drought in six central US grasslands

  • Alan K. KnappEmail author
  • Charles J. W. Carroll
  • Elsie M. Denton
  • Kimberly J. La Pierre
  • Scott L. Collins
  • Melinda D. Smith
Special Topic: Coordinated approaches to global change research


Terrestrial ecosystems often vary dramatically in their responses to drought, but the reasons for this are unclear. With climate change forecasts for more frequent and extensive drought in the future, a more complete understanding of the mechanisms that determine differential ecosystem sensitivity to drought is needed. In 2012, the Central US experienced the fourth largest drought in a century, with a regional-scale 40 % reduction in growing season precipitation affecting ecosystems ranging from desert grassland to mesic tallgrass prairie. This provided an opportunity to assess ecosystem sensitivity to a drought of common magnitude in six native grasslands. We tested the prediction that drought sensitivity is inversely related to mean annual precipitation (MAP) by quantifying reductions in aboveground net primary production (ANPP). Long-term ANPP data available for each site (mean length = 16 years) were used as a baseline for calculating reductions in ANPP, and drought sensitivity was estimated as the reduction in ANPP per millimeter reduction in precipitation. Arid grasslands were the most sensitive to drought, but drought responses and sensitivity varied by more than twofold among the six grasslands, despite all sites experiencing 40 % reductions in growing season precipitation. Although drought sensitivity generally decreased with increasing MAP as predicted, there was evidence that the identity and traits of the dominant species, as well as plant functional diversity, influenced sensitivity. A more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms leading to differences in drought sensitivity will require multi-site manipulative experiments designed to assess both biotic and abiotic determinants of ecosystem sensitivity.


Climate change Primary production Precipitation Functional diversity Long-term ecological research 



We thank technicians and scientists at the Konza Prairie, Shortgrass Steppe and the Sevilleta LTER sites for collecting, managing and sharing data, and the scientists associated with the Prairie Heating and Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (PHACE) project in Cheyenne. PHACE was supported by the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Climate Change, Soils and Emissions Program and the US National Science Foundation (NSF; DEB no. 1021559). Primary support for this analysis came from the NSF Macrosystems Biology Program with additional research support from grants from the NSF to Colorado State University, Kansas State University and the University of New Mexico for long-term ecological research. We also thank all of the technicians and research assistants in the Knapp and Smith labs at Colorado State University for the many hours devoted to processing samples for this study.

Supplementary material

442_2015_3233_MOESM1_ESM.docx (44 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 44 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alan K. Knapp
    • 1
    Email author
  • Charles J. W. Carroll
    • 1
  • Elsie M. Denton
    • 1
  • Kimberly J. La Pierre
    • 2
  • Scott L. Collins
    • 3
  • Melinda D. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA

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