Plant and Soil

, Volume 355, Issue 1–2, pp 265–282 | Cite as

Warming and increased precipitation frequency on the Colorado Plateau: implications for biological soil crusts and soil processes

  • Tamara J. ZelikovaEmail author
  • David C. Housman
  • Ed E. Grote
  • Deborah A. Neher
  • Jayne Belnap
Regular Article



Changes in temperature and precipitation are expected to influence ecosystem processes worldwide. Despite their globally large extent, few studies to date have examined the effects of climate change in desert ecosystems, where biological soil crusts are key nutrient cycling components. The goal of this work was to assess how increased temperature and frequency of summertime precipitation affect the contributions of crust organisms to soil processes.


With a combination of experimental 2°C warming and altered summer precipitation frequency applied over 2 years, we measured soil nutrient cycling and the structure and function of crust communities.


We saw no change in crust cover, composition, or other measures of crust function in response to 2°C warming and no effects on any measure of soil chemistry. In contrast, crust cover and function responded to increased frequency of summer precipitation, shifting from moss to cyanobacteria-dominated crusts; however, in the short timeframe we measured, there was no accompanying change in soil chemistry. Total bacterial and fungal biomass was also reduced in watered plots, while the activity of two enzymes increased, indicating a functional change in the microbial community.


Taken together, our results highlight the limited effects of warming alone on biological soil crust communities and soil chemistry, but demonstrate the substantially larger effects of altered summertime precipitation.


Colorado Plateau Biological soil crusts Climate change Soil chemistry 



Thanks to DOE PER program and Jeff Amthor for providing funding for this project. Thomas R. Weicht, Nicholas LeValley, Henrietta Oakley and Koela Ray provided technical support in conducting extracellular enzyme assays and Kelly Ramirez provided helpful suggestions for extracellular enzyme analyses. We also thank S. Phillips, M. Turner, P. Ortiz, A. Atchley, A. Collins, J. Aylward, B. Graham, K. Markland, T. Orbiz, and many more for help in the field and with lab analyses. We are grateful to M. Bowker and two anonymous reviewers for suggestions that greatly improved the manuscript.

Supplementary material

11104_2011_1097_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (617 kb)
Supplementary Figure 1 Photograph of the study site in Castle Valley, UT, illustrating one of the watered experimental plots (PDF 616 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. (outside the USA) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tamara J. Zelikova
    • 1
    Email author
  • David C. Housman
    • 2
  • Ed E. Grote
    • 1
  • Deborah A. Neher
    • 3
  • Jayne Belnap
    • 1
  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveySouthwest Biological Science CenterMoabUSA
  2. 2.Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM)National Training CenterFort IrwinUSA
  3. 3.Department of Plant and Soil ScienceUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA

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