Climatic Change

, Volume 118, Issue 2, pp 197–212 | Cite as

Effects of rainfall amount and frequency on vegetation growth in a Tibetan alpine meadow

  • Baocheng ZhangEmail author
  • Junji Cao
  • Yanfen Bai
  • Xuhui ZhouEmail author
  • Zhigang Ning
  • Songjie Yang
  • Lin Hu


Over the past decades, rainfall amount and frequency changed considerably on the Tibetan Plateau. However, how altered rainfall pattern affects vegetation growth and phenology in Tibetan alpine grasslands is poorly understood. In this study, we investigated the long-term effects of rainfall amount and frequency on production (i.e., aboveground biomass, AGB) and phenology of three perennial plants in a Tibetan alpine meadow from 1994 to 2005. Growth period (i.e., the dates from greening to senescence) was referred to plant phenology here. Our results showed that annual precipitation and total rainfall from large events (≥ 5 mm per day) were mainly distributed in the growing season, which increased significantly from 1994 to 2005 with more increment in May and July (p < 0.05). Total AGB and growth periods of three plants were linearly correlated with annual precipitation and total rainfall from large events, but have insignificant correlations with total rainfall from small events (< 5 mm per day) and rainfall frequency (including small, large, and all events). The results suggest that aboveground plant production and phenology are more sensitive to changes in large rainfall events (≥ 5 mm per day) than small events (< 5 mm per day) in the alpine meadow ecosystems.


Rainfall Event Growth Period Aboveground Biomass Rainfall Pattern Total Rainfall 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors thank the five anonymous reviewers for the insightful comments on the manuscript. This research was financially supported by China eleventh and twelfth 5-year plan science and technology support project (2007BAC30B00 and 2012BAH31B03), and sponsored by 2012 Shanghai Pujiang Program (12PJ1401400), Thousand Young Talents Program in China, and The Program for Professor of Special Appointment (Eastern Scholar) at Shanghai Institutions of Higher Learning.


  1. 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(2):221–235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bai YF, Wu JG, Xing Q, Pan QM, Huang JH, Yang DL, Han XG (2008) Primary production and rain use efficiency across a precipitation gradient on the Mongolia plateau. Ecology 89(8):2140–2153CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bai YF, Wang J, Zhang BC, Zhang ZH (2012) Comparing the impact of cloudiness on carbon dioxide exchange in a grassland and a maize cropland in northwestern China. Ecol Res 27(3):615–623Google Scholar
  4. Barr AG, Black TA, Hogg EH, Griffis TJ, Morgenstern K, Kljun N, Theede A, Nesic Z (2007) Climatic controls on the carbon and water balances of a boreal aspen forest, 1994–2003. Glob Chang Biol 13(3):561–576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blum A (1996) Crop responses to drought and the interpretation of adaptation. Plant Growth Regul 20(2):135–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cao GM, Lin L, Zhang FW, Li YK, Han DR, Long RJ (2004) A review of maintenance, loss and recovery of stability of alpine Kobresia humilis meadow on Tibetan Plateau. Pratacultural Sci 27(8):34–38Google Scholar
  7. China Meteorological Administration (1993) Observation criterion of agricultural meteorology. China Meteorological Press, Beijing 167–174Google Scholar
  8. Churkina G, Running SW (1998) Contrasting climatic controls on the estimated productivity of global terrestrial biomes. Ecosystems 1(2):206–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Churkina G, Schimel D, Braswell BH, Xiao X (2005) Spatial analysis of growing season length control over net ecosystem exchange. Glob Chang Biol 11(10):1777–1787CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Craine JM et al (2012) Timing of climate variability and grassland productivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 109(9):3401–3405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Davison JE, Breshears DD, van Leeuwen WJD, Casady GM (2011) Remotely sensed vegetation phenology and productivity along a climatic gradient: on the value of incorporating the dimension of woody plant cover. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 20(1):101–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dieleman JA, Verstappen FWA, Kuiper D (1998) Root temperature effects on growth and bud break of Rosa hybrida in relation to cytokinin concentrations in xylem sap. Sci Hortic 76(3–4):183–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dougherty RL, Lauenroth WK, Singh JS (1996) Response of a grassland cactus to frequency and size of rainfall events in a North American shortgrass steppe. J Ecol 84(2):177–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Du J, Yan P, Dong Y (2011) Precipitation characteristics and its impact on vegetation restoration in Minqin County, Gansu Province, northwest China. Int J Climatol 31(8):1153–1165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fang J, Piao S, Zhou L, He J, Wei F, Myneni RB, Tucker CJ, Tan K (2005) Precipitation patterns alter growth of temperate vegetation. Geophys Res Lett 32:L21411. doi: 10.1029/2005GL024231 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 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(3):308–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fay PA, Carlisle JD, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Collins SL (2003) Productivity responses to altered rainfall patterns in a C4-dominated grassland. Oecologia 137(2):245–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fay PA, Kaufman DM, Nippert JB, Carlisle JD, Harper CW (2008) Changes in grassland ecosystem function due to extreme rainfall events: implications for responses to climate change. Glob Chang Biol 14(7):1600–1608Google Scholar
  19. Feng YL, Lei YB, Wang RF, Callaway RM, Valiente-Banuet A, Inderjit, Li YP, Zheng YL (2009) Evolutionary tradeoffs for nitrogen allocation to photosynthesis versus cell walls in an invasive plant. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106(6):1853–1856CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gao Q, Li Y, Wan YF, Qin XB, Jiangcun WZ, Liu YH (2009) Dynamics of alpine grassland NPP and its response to climate change in Northern Tibet. Clim Chang 97(3):515–528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Golluscio RA, Sala OE, Lauenroth WK (1998) Differential use of large summer rainfall events by shrubs and grasses: a manipulative experiment in the Patagonian steppe. Oecologia 115(1–2):17–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Grogan J, Schulze M (2012) The impact of annual and seasonal rainfall patterns on growth and phenology of emergent tree species in southeastern Amazonia, Brazil. Biotropica 44(3):331–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Huntington TG (2008) CO2 induced suppression of transpiration cannot explain increasing runoff. Hydrol Process 22(2):311–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Huxman TE, Snyder KA, Tissue D, Leffler AJ, Ogle K, Pockman WT, Sandquist DR, Potts DL, Schwinning S (2004) Precipitation pulses and carbon fluxes in semiarid and arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141(2):254–268Google Scholar
  25. Intergov. Panel Clim. Change (2007) Working group 1: the physical science basis. Summary for policymakers.
  26. Jenerette GD, Scott RL, Huxman TE (2008) Whole ecosystem metabolic pulses following precipitation events. Funct Ecol 22(5):924–930Google Scholar
  27. Jolly WM, Running SW (2004) Effects of precipitation and soil water potential on drought deciduous phenology in the Kalahari. Glob Chang Biol 10(3):303–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Knapp AK, Beier C, Briske DD, Classen AT, Luo YQ, Reichstein M, Smith MD, Smith SD, Bell JE, Fay PA, Heisler JL, Leavitt SD, Sherry R, Smith B, Weng E (2008) Consequences of more extreme precipitation regimes for terrestrial ecosystems. BioScience 58(9):811–821CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Liu YA, Wang EL, Yang XG, Wang J (2010) Contributions of climatic and crop varietal changes to crop production in the North China Plain, since 1980s. Glob Chang Biol 16(8):2287–2299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Loik ME (2007) Sensitivity of water relations and photosynthesis to summer precipitation pulses for Artemisia tridentata and Purshia tridentata. Plant Ecol 191(1):95–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Long RJ, Apori SO, Castro FB, Ørskov ER (1999) Feed value of native forages of the Tibetan Plateau of China. Anim Feed Sci Technol 80(2):101–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Luo T, Pan Y, Ouyang H, Shi P, Luo J, Yu Z, Lu Q (2004) Leaf area index and net primary productivity along subtropical to alpine gradients in the Tibetan Plateau. Global Ecol Biogeogr 13(4):345–358CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Milchunas DG, Lauenroth WK (2001) Belowground primary production by carbon isotope decay and longterm root biomass dynamics. Ecosystems 4(2):139–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Miranda JD, Padilla FM, Lázaro R, Pugnaire FI (2009) Do changes in rainfall patterns affect semiarid annual plant communities? J Veg Sci 20(2):269–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Muller RN (1978) The phenology, growth and ecosystem dynamics of erythronium americanum in the northern hardwood forest. Ecol Monogr 48(1):1–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Munkhtsetseg E, Kimura R, Wang J, Shinoda M (2007) Pasture yield response to precipitation and high temperature in Mongolia. J Arid Environ 70(1):94–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Munson S, Benton T, Lauenroth W, Burke I (2010) Soil carbon flux following pulse precipitation events in the shortgrass steppe. Eco Res 25(1):205–211Google Scholar
  38. Nord EA, Lynch JP (2009) Plant phenology: a critical controller of soil resource acquisition. J Exp Bot 60(7):1927–1937CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Noy-Meir I (1973) Desert ecosystems: environment and producers. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 4(1):25–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Piao SL, Fang JY, He JS (2006) Variations in vegetation net primary production in the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, China, from 1982 to 1999. Clim Chang 74(1–3):253–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Potts DL, Huxman TE, Enquist BJ, Weltzin JF, Williams DG (2006) Resilience and resistance of ecosystem functional response to a precipitation pulse in a semi-arid grassland. J Ecol 94(1):23–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Robertson TR, Bell CW, Zak JC, Tissue DT (2009) Precipitation timing and magnitude differentially affect aboveground annual net primary productivity in three perennial species in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland. New Phytol 181(1):230–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sala OE, Lauenroth WK (1982) Small rainfall events: an ecological role in semiarid regions. Oecologia 53(3):301–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Sala OE, Parton WJ, Joyce LA, Lauenroth WK (1988) Primary production of the central Grassland region of the United States. Ecology 69(1):40–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Santiago LS, Schuur EAG, Schuur KS (2005) Nutrient cycling and plant-soil feedbacks across a precipitation gradient in lowland Panama. J Trop Ecol 21:46–470Google Scholar
  46. Schwinning S, Ehleringer JR (2001) Water use trade-offs and optimal adaptations to pulse-driven arid ecosystems. J Ecol 89(3):464–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Shackleton CM (1999) Rainfall and topo-edaphic influences on woody community phenology in South African savannas. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 8(2):125–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sherry RA, Weng ES, Arnone JA, Johnson DW, Schimel DS, Verburg PS, Wallace LL, Luo YQ (2008) Lagged effects of experimental warming and doubled precipitation on annual and seasonal aboveground biomass production in a tallgrass prairie. Glob Chang Biol 14(12):2923–2936CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sims PL, Singh JS (1978) The structure and function of ten Western North American grasslands: III. Net primary production, turnover and efficiencies of energy capture and water use. J Ecol 66(2):573–597CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Sneva F (1982) Relation of precipitation and temperature with yield of herbaceous plants in eastern Oregon. Int J Biometeorol 26:263–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. SPSS Inc. (2004) SPSS® 13.0 Base User’s Guide. Chicago, Illinois, USAGoogle Scholar
  52. State Meteorological Administration, chief editor (1993) Agricultural Meteorology Meteorology Press, Beijing 136–138Google Scholar
  53. Swemmer AM, Knapp AK, Snyman HA (2007) Intra-seasonal precipitation patterns and above-ground productivity in three perennial grasslands. J Ecol 95(4):780–788CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tao F, Yokozawa M, Xu Y, Hayashi Y, Zhang Z (2006) Climate changes and trends in phenology and yields of field crops in China, 1981–2000. Agric For Meteorol 138(1–4):82–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Thomson BD, Siddique KHM, Barr MD, Wilson JM (1997) Grain legume species in low rainfall Mediterranean-type environments.1. Phenology and seed yield. Field Crops Res 54(2–3):173–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wang HL, Gan YT, Wang RY, Niu JY, Zhao H, Yang QG, Li GC (2008) Phenological trends in winter wheat and spring cotton in response to climate changes in northwest China. Agric For Meteorol 148(8–9):1242–1251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wang GX, Li SN, Hu HC, Li YS (2009) Water regime shifts in the active soil layer of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau permafrost region, under different levels of vegetation. Geoderma 149(3–4):280–289Google Scholar
  58. Wei YF, Guo K, Chen JQ (2008). Effect of precipitation pattern on recruitment of soil water in Kubuqi desert,northwestern China. J Plant Ecol 32(6):1346–1355 (in Chinese)Google Scholar
  59. Weltzin JF, Loik ME, Schwinning S, Williams DG, Fay PA, Haddad BM, Harte J, Huxman TE, Knapp AK, Lin GH, Pockman WT, Shaw MR, Small EE, Smith MD, Smith SD, Tissue DT, Zak JC (2003) Assessing the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential changes in precipitation. BioScience 53(10):941–952CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Xu WX, Song G, Zhao XQ, Xiao JS, Tange YH, Fang JY, Zhang J, Jiang S (2011) High positive correlation between soil temperature and NDVI from 1982 to 2006 in alpine meadow of the Three-River Source Region on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Int J Appl Earth Obs Geoinformation 13(4):528–535CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Yahdjian L, Sala OE (2006) Vegetation structure constrains primary production response to water availability in the Patagonian steppe. Ecology 87(4):952–962CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Yang YH, Fang JY, Ma WH, Wang W (2008) Relationship between variability in aboveground net primary production and precipitation in global grassland. Geophys Res Lett 35,L23710, doi: 10.1029/2008GL035408
  63. Yang YH, Fang JY, Pan YD, Ji CJ (2009) Aboveground biomass in Tibetan grasslands. J Arid Environ 73(1):91–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Yang, YH, Fang, JY, Fay, PA, Bell, JE and Ji, CJ (2010) Rain use efficiency across a precipitation gradient on the Tibetan Plateau. Geophys Res Lett 37Google Scholar
  65. Zavaleta ES, Thomas BD, Chiariello NR, Asner GP, Shaw MR, Field CB (2003) Plants reverse warming effect on ecosystem water balance. Proc Natl Acad Sci 100(17):9892–9893CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Zhang F, Li H, Li Y, Li Y, Lin L (2009) Periodic fluctuation features of air temperature, precipitation, and aboveground net primary production of alpine meadow ecosystem on Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Chin J Ecol 20(3):525–530Google Scholar
  67. Zhao X (2009) Alpine meadow ecosystem and global change. Science Press, BeijingGoogle Scholar
  68. Zhong L, Ma Y, Salama M, Su Z (2010) Assessment of vegetation dynamics and their response to variations in precipitation and temperature in the Tibetan Plateau. Clim Chang 103(3):519–535CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Zhou LM, Tucker CJ, Kaufmann RK, Slayback D, Shabanov NV, Myneni RB (2001) Variations in northern vegetation activity inferred from satellite data of vegetation index during 1981 to 1999. J Geophys Res-Atmos 106(D17):20069–20083CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Zhou X, Talley M, Luo Y (2009) Biomass, litter, and soil respiration along a precipitation gradient in southern great plains, USA. Ecosystems 12(8):1369–1380CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.State Key Lab of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth EnvironmentChinese Academy of SciencesXi’anChina
  2. 2.Coastal Ecosystems Research Station of the Yangtze River Estuary, Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Science and Ecological Engineering, The Institute of Biodiversity ScienceFudan UniversityShanghaiChina
  3. 3.Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research InstituteChinese Academy of SciencesLanzhouChina
  4. 4.Shaanxi Changqing National Natural ReserveYang CountyChina
  5. 5.College of Agriculture and life sciencesAnkang UniversityAnkangChina

Personalised recommendations