, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 54–65 | Cite as

Cessation of Burning Dries Soils Long Term in a Tallgrass Prairie

  • Joseph M. CraineEmail author
  • Jesse B. Nippert


Soil moisture is a critical variable in grassland function, yet how fire regimes influence ecohydrology is poorly understood. By altering productivity, species composition, and litter accumulation, fire can indirectly increase or decrease soil water depletion on a range of time scales and depths in the soil profile. To better understand how fire influences soil moisture in grasslands, we analyzed 28 years of soil moisture data from two watersheds in a central North American grassland which differ in their long-term fire frequency. Across 28 years, cessation of prescribed burning initially led to wetter soils, likely as litter accumulated and both transpiration and evaporation were suppressed. Long-term, cessation of burning led to soils drying more, especially at depths greater than 75 cm. The long-term drying of deep soils is consistent with the increase in woody species in the infrequently burned grassland as woody species likely have a greater reliance on soil water from deeper soil layers compared to co-occurring herbaceous species. Despite the ecohydrological changes associated with the cessation of prescribed burning, watersheds with different burn regimes responded similarly to short-term variation in climate variation. In both watersheds, low precipitation and high temperatures led to drier soils with greater responses in soil moisture to climate variation later in the season than earlier. There is no current evidence that the cessation of burning in this ecosystem will qualitatively alter how evapotranspiration responds to climate variation, but the use of deeper soil water by woody plants has the potential for greater transpiration during dry times. In all, modeling the depth-specific responses of soil moisture and associated ecosystem processes to changes in burn regimes will likely require including responses of plant community composition over short and long time scales.

Key words

fire soil moisture Konza Prairie critical climate period ecohydrology evapotranspiration woody species 



This research was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation over the entirety of the Konza LTER program including the recent grant (DEB-0823341). A number of people including Gene Towne and Amanda Kuhl were responsible for the measurements of soil moisture over the years and maintaining the burn program at Konza. Gene Towne, Nate Brunsell, the editor, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript.


  1. Archibold OW, Ripley EA, Delanoy L. 2003. Effects of season of burning on the microenvironment of fescue prairie in Central Saskatchewan. Can Field Nat 117:257–66.Google Scholar
  2. Austin AT, Yahdjian L, Stark JM, Belnap J, Porporato A, Norton U, Ravetta DA, Schaeffer SM. 2004. Water pulses and biogeochemical cycles in arid and semiarid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:221–35.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bailey AW, Poulton CE. 1968. Plant communities and environmental interrelationships in a portion of Tillamook Burn Northwestern Oregon. Ecology 49:1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boerner REJ. 1982. Fire and nutrient cycling in temperate ecosystems. Bioscience 32:187–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bowman DMJS, Balch J, Artaxo P, Bond WJ, Cochrane MA, D’Antonio CM, DeFries R, Johnston FH, Keeley JE, Krawchuk MA. 2011. The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth. J Biogeogr 38:2223–36.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bremer DJ, Ham JM. 1999. Effect of spring burning on the surface energy balance in a tallgrass prairie. Agric For Meteorol 97:43–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Breshears DD, Barnes FJ. 1999. Interrelationships between plant functional types and soil moisture heterogeneity for semiarid landscapes within the grassland/forest continuum: a unified conceptual model. Landsc Ecol 14:465–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 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 Botany 82:1024–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Briggs JM, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Heisler JL, Hoch GA, Lett MS, McCarron JK. 2005. An ecosystem in transition: causes and consequences of the conversion of mesic grassland to shrubland. Bioscience 55:243–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brudvig LA, Asbjornsen H. 2009. The removal of woody encroachment restores biophysical gradients in midwestern oak savannas. J Appl Ecol 46:231–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Craine JM, Joern A, Towne EG, Hamilton RG. 2009. Consequences of climate variability for the performance of bison in tallgrass prairie. Glob Chang Biol 15:772–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Craine JM, Towne EG, Nippert JB. 2010. Climate controls on grass culm production over a quarter century in a tallgrass prairie. Ecology 91:2132–40.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Craine JM, Nippert JB, Elmore AJ, Skibbe AM, Hutchinson SL, Brunsell NA. 2012. Timing of climate variability and grassland productivity. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 109:3401–5.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. D’Antonio CM, Vitousek PM. 1992. Biological invations by exotic grasses, the grass fire cycle, and global change. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 23:63–87.Google Scholar
  15. Delire C, Foley JA, Thompson S. 2004. Long-term variability in a coupled atmosphere-biosphere model. J Clim 17:3947–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eggemeyer KD, Awada T, Harvey FE, Wedin DA, Zhou X, Zanner CW. 2009. Seasonal changes in depth of water uptake for encroaching trees Juniperus virginiana and Pinus ponderosa and two dominant C4 grasses in a semiarid grassland. Tree Physiol 29:157–69.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eldridge DJ, Bowker MA, Maestre FT, Roger E, Reynolds JF, Whitford WG. 2011. Impacts of shrub encroachment on ecosystem structure and functioning: towards a global synthesis. Ecol Lett 14:709–22.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Huxman TE, Cable JM, Ignace DD, Eilts JA, English NB, Weltzin J, Williams DG. 2004. Response of net ecosystem gas exchange to a simulated precipitation pulse in a semi-arid grassland: the role of native versus non-native grasses and soil texture. Oecologia 141:295–305.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Huxman TE, Wilcox BP, Breshears DD, Scott RL, Snyder KA, Small EE, Hultine K, Pockman WT, Jackson RB. 2005. Ecohydrological implications of woody plant encroachment. Ecology 86:308–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jackson RB, Jobbágy EG, Nosetto MD. 2009. Ecohydrology in a human-dominated landscape. Ecohydrology 2:383–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Knapp AK, Fahnestock JT, Hamburg SP, Statland LB, Seastedt TR, Schimel DS. 1993. Landscape patterns in soil-plant water relations and primary production in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 74:549–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Koelliker JK. 2001. Frequency and extent of water limitation to primary production in a mesic temperate grassland. Ecosystems 4:19–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Knapp AK, Beier C, Briske DD, Classen AT, Luo Y, Reichstein M, Smith MD, Smith SD, Bell JE, Fay PA et al. 2008a. Consequences of more extreme precipitation regimes for terrestrial ecosystems. Bioscience 58:811–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Collins SL, Archer SR, Bret-Harte MS, Ewers BE, Peters DP, Young DR, Shaver GR, Pendall E et al. 2008b. Shrub encroachment in North American grasslands: shifts in growth form dominance rapidly alters control of ecosystem carbon inputs. Glob Chang Biol 14:615–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. La Pierre KJ, Yuan S, Chang CC, Avolio ML, Hallett LM, Schreck T, Smith MD. 2011. Explaining temporal variation in above-ground productivity in a mesic grassland: the role of climate and flowering. J Ecol 99:1250–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lauenroth WK, Bradford JB. 2006. Ecohydrology and the partitioning AET between transpiration and evaporation in a semiarid steppe. Ecosystems 9:756–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ludwig F, Dawson TE, Prins HHT, Berendse F, de Kroon H. 2004. Below-ground competition between trees and grasses may overwhelm the facilitative effects of hydraulic lift. Ecol Lett 7:623–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Miranda AC, Miranda HS, Lloyd J, Grace J, Francey RJ, McIntyre JA, Meir P, Riggan P, Lockwood R, Brass J. 1997. Fluxes of carbon, water and energy over Brazilian cerrado: an analysis using eddy covariance and stable isotopes. Plant Cell Environ 20:315–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Morgan JA, Pataki DE, Korner C, Clark H, Del Grosso SJ, Grunzweig JM, Knapp AK, Mosier AR, Newton PCD, Niklaus PA et al. 2004. Water relations in grassland and desert ecosystems exposed to elevated atmospheric CO2. Oecologia 140:11–25.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Moritz MA, Parisien M-A, Batllori E, Krawchuk MA, Van Dorn J, Ganz DJ, Hayhoe K. 2012. Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity. Ecosphere 3:art49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nepstad DC, De Carvalho CR, Davidson EA, Jipp PH, Lefebvre PA, Negreiros GH, Da Silva ED, Stone TA, Trumbore SE, Vieira S. 1994. The role of deep roots in the hydrological and carbon cycles of amazonian forests and pastures. Nature 372:666–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Niboyet A, Brown JR, Dijkstra P, Blankinship JC, Leadley PW, Le Roux X, Barthes L, Barnard RL, Field CB, Hungate BA. 2011. Global change could amplify fire effects on soil greenhouse gas emissions. PLoS One 6:e20105.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nippert JB, Knapp AK. 2007. Soil water partitioning contributes to species coexistence in tallgrass prairie. Oikos 116:1017–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nippert JB, Ocheltree TW, Skibbe AM, Kangas LC, Ham JM, Arnold KBS, Brunsell NA. 2011. Linking plant growth responses across topographic gradients in tallgrass prairie. Oecologia 166:1131–42.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Nippert JB, Wieme RA, Ocheltree TW, Craine JM. 2012. Root characteristics of C-4 grasses limit reliance on deep soil water in tallgrass prairie. Plant Soil 355:385–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Nosetto MD, Jobbagy EG, Paruelo JM. 2005. Land-use change and water losses: the case of grassland afforestation across a soil textural gradient in central Argentina. Glob Chang Biol 11:1101–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Raddatz RL, Cummine JD. 2003. Inter-annual variability of moisture flux from the prairie agro-ecosystem: Impact of crop phenology on the seasonal pattern of tornado days. Boundary Layer Meteorol 106:283–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ratajczak Z, Nippert JB, Hartman JC, Ocheltree TW. 2011. Positive feedbacks amplify rates of woody encroachment in mesic tallgrass prairie. Ecosphere 2:art121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Risch AC, Frank DA. 2007. Effects of increased soil water availability on grassland ecosystem carbon dioxide fluxes. Biogeochemistry 86:91–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sala OE, Parton WJ, Joyce LA, Lauenroth WK. 1988. Primary production of the central grassland region of the United States. Ecology 69:40–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Sala OE, Lauenroth WK, Parton WJ. 1992. Long-term soil water dynamics in the shortgrass steppe. Ecology 73:1175–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sankaran M, Hanan NP, Scholes RJ, Ratnam J, Augustine DJ, Cade BS, Gignoux J, Higgins SI, Le Roux X, Ludwig F et al. 2005. Determinants of woody cover in African savannas. Nature 438:846–9.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Scanlon BR, Levitt DG, Reedy RC, Keese KE, Sully MJ. 2005. Ecological controls on water-cycle response to climate variability in deserts. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 102:6033–8.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schenk HJ, Jackson RB. 2002. The global biogeography of roots. Ecol Monogr 72:311–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Scholes RJ, Archer SR. 1997. Tree–grass interactions in savannas. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 28:517–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schulze ED, Mooney H, Sala O, Jobbagy E, Buchmann N, Bauer G, Canadell J, Jackson R, Loreti J, Oesterheld M. 1996. Rooting depth, water availability, and vegetation cover along an aridity gradient in Patagonia. Oecologia 108:503–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Seastedt TR. 1985. Canopy interception of nitrogen in bulk precipitation by annually burned and unburned tallgrass prairie. Oecologia 66:88–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Seastedt TR, Briggs JM, Gibson DJ. 1991. Controls of nitrogen limitation in tallgrass prairie. Oecologia 87:72–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Silva CM, Gonçalves JFDC, Feldpausch TR. 2008. Water-use efficiency of tree species following calcium and phosphorus application on an abandoned pasture, central Amazonia, Brazil. Environ Exp Botany 64:189–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Singh J, Milchunas D, Lauenroth W. 1998. Soil water dynamics and vegetation patterns in a semiarid grassland. Plant Ecol 134:77–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Staver AC, Archibald S, Levin SA. 2011. The global extent and determinants of savanna and forest as alternative biome states. Science 334:230–2.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Teuling AJ, Seneviratne SI, Williams C, Troch PA. 2006. Observed timescales of evapotranspiration response to soil moisture. Geophys Res Lett 33: L23403, doi: 10.1029/.2006GL028178.
  53. Throop HL, Reichmann LG, Sala OE, Archer SR. 2012. Response of dominant grass and shrub species to water manipulation: an ecophysiological basis for shrub invasion in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland. Oecologia 169:373–83.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Toms JD, Lesperance ML. 2003. Piecewise regression: a tool for identifying ecological thresholds. Ecology 84:2034–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Trenberth KE. 1998. Atmospheric moisture residence times and cycling: implications for rainfall rates and climate change. Clim Chang 39:667–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Turner CL, Blair JM, Schartz RJ, Neel JC. 1997. Soil N and plant responses to fire, topography, and supplemental N in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 78:1832–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Verweij RJT, Higgins SI, Bond WJ, February EC. 2011. Water sourcing by trees in a mesic savanna: Responses to severing deep and shallow roots. Environ Exp Botany 74:229–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Walter H. 1979. Vegetation of earth and ecological systems of the geo-biosphere. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  59. Wan S, Hui D, Luo Y. 2001. Fire effects on nitrogen pools and dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems: a meta-analysis. Ecol Appl 11:1349–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wang L, D’Odorico P, Evans JP, Eldridge DJ, McCabe MF, Caylor KK, King EG. 2012. Dryland ecohydrology and climate change: critical issues and technical advances. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 16:2585–603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Weaver JE. 1968. Prairie plants and their environment: a fifty year study in the midwest. Lincoln, Nebraska, USA: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  62. Weltzin JF, Loik ME, Schwinning S, Williams DG, Fay PA, Haddad BM, Harte J, Huxman TE, Knapp AK, Lin GH et al. 2003. Assessing the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential changes in precipitation. Bioscience 53:941–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Williams CA, Hanan N, Scholes RJ, Kutsch W. 2009. Complexity in water and carbon dioxide fluxes following rain pulses in an African savanna. Oecologia 161:469–80.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of BiologyKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA

Personalised recommendations