Plant and Soil

, Volume 416, Issue 1–2, pp 427–436 | Cite as

Enhanced precipitation promotes decomposition and soil C stabilization in semiarid ecosystems, but seasonal timing of wetting matters

  • Xochi Campos
  • Matthew J. Germino
  • Marie-Anne de Graaff
Regular Article



Changing precipitation regimes in semiarid ecosystems will affect the balance of soil carbon (C) input and release, but the net effect on soil C storage is unclear. We asked how changes in the amount and timing of precipitation affect litter decomposition, and soil C stabilization in semiarid ecosystems.


The study took place at a long-term (18 years) ecohydrology experiment located in Idaho. Precipitation treatments consisted of a doubling of annual precipitation (+200 mm) added either in the cold-dormant season or in the growing season. Experimental plots were planted with big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), or with crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum). We quantified decomposition of sagebrush leaf litter, and we assessed organic soil C (SOC) in aggregates, and silt and clay fractions.


We found that: (1) increased precipitation applied in the growing season consistently enhanced decomposition rates relative to the ambient treatment, and (2) precipitation applied in the dormant season enhanced soil C stabilization.


These data indicate that prolonged increases in precipitation can promote soil C storage in semiarid ecosystems, but only if these increases happen at times of the year when conditions allow for precipitation to promote plant C inputs rates to soil.


Precipitation change Soil carbon sequestration Litter decomposition Semiarid ecosystem 





soil organic carbon



We thank Amanda Sills, Jessica Vanderveen, Jaron Adkins, Michael Anderson, Hasini Delvinne, Janina Dierks, Shay Gillette, Aislinn Johns, Jamie (Hicks) Kezar, Peggy Martinez, Leslie Nichols, and Arianne Shannon for assisting with the field and laboratory work. Many thanks to Keith Reinhardt for helping managing the field site, the Idaho National Laboratory for providing the field site and Stoller Corporation for logistical support. This work was supported by the NSF Idaho EPSCoR Program under award number EPS-0814387. Any use of trade, product or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


  1. Aanderud Z, Richards J, Svejcar T, James J (2010a) A shift in seasonal rainfall reduces soil organic carbon storage in a Cold Desert. Ecosystems 13:673–682CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aanderud Z, Schoolmaster D, Lennon J (2010b) Plants mediate the sensitivity of soil respiration to rainfall variability. Ecosystems 14:156167Google Scholar
  3. Anderson JE, Forman AD (2002) The protective cap/biobarrier experiment a study of alternative evapotranspiration caps for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Education, and Research report, Stoller Corporation and Idaho State University, STOLLER-ESER-46Google Scholar
  4. Anderson O (2011) Soil respiration, climate change and the role of microbial communities. Protist 162:679–690CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Austin A, Yahdjian L, Stark J, Belnap J, Porporato A, Norton U, Ravetta D, Schaeffer S (2004) Water pulses and biogeochemical cycles in arid and semiarid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:221–234CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Caldwell MM (1981) Plant response to solar ultraviolet radiation. In: Lange 0L, Nobel PS, Osmond CB, Ziegler H (eds) Encyclopedia of plant physiology 12 A, Physiological plant ecology1. Springer, Berlin, pp 170–194Google Scholar
  7. Chen S, Lin G, Huang J, Jenerette G (2009) Dependence of carbon sequestration on the differential responses of ecosystem photosynthesis and respiration to rain pulses in a semiarid steppe. Global Change Biol 15:2450–2461Google Scholar
  8. Collins S, Sinsabaugh R, Crenshaw C, Green L, Porras-Alfaro A, Stursova M, Zeglin L (2008) Pulse dynamics and microbial processes in aridland ecosystems. J Ecol 96:413–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collins S, Belnap J, Grimm N, Rudgers J, Dahm C, D'Odorico P, Litvak M, Natvig D, Peters D, Pockman W, Sinsabaugh R, Wolf B (2014) A multiscale, hierarchical model of pulse dynamics in arid-land ecosystems. Annu Rev Ecol Evol 45:397–419CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cotrufo MF, Wallenstein MD, Boot CM, Denef K, Paul E (2013) The microbial efficiency-matrix stabilization (MEMS) framework integrates plant litter decomposition with soil organic matter stabilization: do labile plant inputs form stable soil organic matter? Glob Change Biol 19:988–995CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cramer W, Bondeau A, Woodward F, Prentice I, Betts R, Brovkin V, Cox P, Fisher V, Foley J, Friend A, Kucharik C, Lomas M, Ramankutty N, Sitch S, Smith B, White A, Young-Molling C (2001) Global response of terrestrial ecosystem structure and function to CO2 and climate change: results from six dynamic global vegetation models. Glob Change Biol 7:357–373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cregger M, Schadt C, McDowell N, Pockman W, Classen A (2012) Response of the soil microbial community to changes in precipitation in a semiarid ecosystem. Appl Environ Microb 78:8587–8594CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. de Graaff M-A, Throop H, Verburg P, Arnone J, Campos X (2014) A synthesis of climate and vegetation cover effects on biogeochemical cycling in shrub-dominated drylands. Ecosystems 17:931945CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Denef K, Six J, Merckx R, Paustian K (2004) Carbon sequestration in microaggregates of no-tillage soils with different clay mineralogy. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:1935CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Elliot E, Coleman D (1988) Let the soil do the work for us. Ecol Bull 39:23–32Google Scholar
  16. Germino M, Reinhardt K (2014) Desert shrub responses to experimental modification of precipitation seasonality and soil depth: relationship to the two-layer hypothesis and ecohydrological niche. J Ecol 102:989–997CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hastings S, Oechel W, Muhlia-Melo A (2005) Diurnal, seasonal and annual variation in the net ecosystem CO2 exchange of a desert shrub community (Sarcocaulescent) in Baja California, Mexico. Glob Change Biol 11:927–939CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Holmgren M, Stapp P, Dickman C, Gracia C, Graham S, Gutierrez J, Hice C, Jaksic F, Kelt D, Letnic M, Lima M, Lopez B, Meserve P, Milstead W, Polis G, Previtali M, Richter M, Sabate S, Squeo F (2006) Extreme climatic events shape arid and semiarid ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ 4:57–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Huxman T, Snyder K, Tissue D, Leffler A, Ogle K, Pockman W, Sandquist D, Potts D, Schwinning S (2004) Precipitation pulses and carbon fluxes in semiarid and arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:254–268CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) The physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen Z, Marquis M, Averyt KB, Tignor M, Miller HL (Eds) Vol 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  21. Jastrow JA, Amonette J, Bailey V (2007) Mechanisms controlling soil carbon turnover and their potential application for enhancing carbon sequestration. Clim Chang 80:5–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Johnson D, Curtis P (2001) Effects of forest management on soil C and N storage: meta analysis. Forest Ecol Manag 140:227–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kallenbach CM, Frey SD, Grandy AS (2016) Direct evidence for microbial-derived soil organic matter formation and its ecophysiological controls. Nat Commun 7:13630. doi: 10.1038/ncomms13630
  24. Lal R (2004) Soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change. Geoderma 123:122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lawrence CR, Neff JC, Schimel JP (2009) Does adding microbial mechanisms of decomposition improve soil organic matter models? A comparison of four models using data from a pulsed rewetting experiment. Soil Biol Biochem 41:1923–1934Google Scholar
  26. Lensing J, Wise D (2007) Impact of changes in rainfall amounts predicted by climate-change models on decomposition in a deciduous forest. Appl Soil Ecol 35:523534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Liu W, Zhang Z, Wan S (2009) Predominant role of water in regulating soil and microbial respiration and their responses to climate change in a semiarid grassland. Glob Change Biol 15:184–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mack M, Schuur E, Bret-Harte M, Shaver G, Chapin F (2004) Ecosystem carbon storage in arctic tundra reduced by long-term nutrient fertilization. Nature 431:440–443CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. McAbee K, Reinhardt K, Germino MJ, Bosworth A (2017) Response of aboveground carbon balance to long-term, experimental enhancements in precipitation seasonality is contingent on plant community type in cold-desert rangelands. Oecologia 183:861–874Google Scholar
  30. McGinnies W (1968) Effect of post-emergence weed control on grass establishment in north-Central Colorado. J Range Manag 21:126–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McGonigle T, Chambers M, White G (2005) Enrichment over time of organic carbon and available phosphorus in semiarid soil. Soil Sci Soc Am J 69:1617–1626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Munson S, Benton T, Lauenroth W, Burke I (2010) Soil carbon flux following pulse precipitation events in the shortgrass steppe. Ecol Res 25:205–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nelson DW, Sommers LE (1996) Total carbon, organic carbon, and organic matter. Methods of soil analysis part 3—chemical methods, (methodsofsoilan3) 961–1010. doi: 10.2136/sssabookser5.3.c34
  34. NAST (2000) Climate change impacts on the United States: the potential consequences of climate variability and change. In: United States Global Change Research Program, Ed. New York: Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  35. Olson GL, Jeppesen DJ, Lee RD (1995) The status of soil mapping for the IdahoNational Engineering Laboratory. INEL-95/0051. Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, ID.Google Scholar
  36. Rustad L, Campbell J, Marion G, Norby R, Mitchell M, Hartley A, Cornelissen J, Gurevitch J (2001) A meta-analysis of the response of soil respiration, net nitrogen mineralization, and aboveground plant growth to experimental ecosystem warming. Oecologia 126:543–562CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Sanaullah M, Rumpel C, Charrier X, Chabbi A (2012) How does drought stress influence the decomposition of plant litter with contrasting quality in a grassland ecosystem? Plant Soil 352:277–288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Schuman G, Janzen H, Herrick J (2002) Soil carbon dynamics and potential carbon sequestration by rangelands. Environ Pollut 116:391–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Six J, Paustian K (2014) Aggregate-associated soil organic matter as an ecosystem property and a measurement tool. Soil Biol Biochem 68:A4–A9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Six J, Elliot E, Paustian K, Doran J (1998) Aggregation and soil organic matter accumulation in cultivated and native grassland soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 62:1367–1377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Six J, Paustian K, Elliot E, Combrink C (2000) Soil structure and organic matter: I. Distribution of aggregate-size classes and aggregate-associated carbon. Soil Sci Soc Am J 64:681–689CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Six J, Conant R, Paul E, Paustian K (2002) Stabilization mechanisms of soil organic matter: implications for C-saturation of soils. Plant Soil 241:155–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sorensen P, Germino M, Feris K (2013) Microbial community responses to 17 years of altered precipitation are seasonally dependent and coupled to co-varying effects of water content on vegetation and soil C. Soil Biol Biochem 64:155–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Stone R (2008) Have desert researchers discovered a hidden loop in the carbon cycle? Science 320:1409CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Suseela V, Tharayil N, Xing B, Dukes J (2013) Labile compounds in plant litter reduce the sensitivity of decomposition to warming and altered precipitation. New Phytol 200:122–133CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Tisdall J, Oades J (1979) Stabilization of soil aggregates by the root systems of ryegrass. Aust J Soil Res 17:429–441CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Uselman SM, Snyder KA, Blank RR, Jones TJ (2011) UVB exposure does not accelerate rates of litter decomposition in a semi-arid riparian ecosystem. Soil Biol Biochem 43:1254–1265Google Scholar
  48. van Gestel NC, Schwilk DW, Tissue DT, Zak JC (2011) Reductions in daily soil temperature variability increase soil microbial biomass C and decrease soil N availability in the Chihuahuan Desert: potential implications for ecosystem C and N fluxes. Glob Change Biol 17:3564–3576Google Scholar
  49. van Groenigen K-J, Six J, Hungate B, de Graaff M-A, van Breemen N, van Kessel C (2006) Element interactions limit soil carbon storage. Proc Natl Acad Sci 103:6571–6574CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  50. Verburg P, Young A, Stevenson B, Glanzmann I, Arnone J, Marion G, Holmes C, Nowak R (2013) Do increased summer precipitation and N deposition alter fine root dynamics in a Mojave Desert ecosystem? Glob Change Biol 19:948–956CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. West N, Young J (2000) Forests and meadows of the Rocky Mountains. In: Barbour MG, Billings WD (eds) North American terrestrial vegetation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp 75–121Google Scholar
  52. Wohlfahrt G, Fenstermaker L, Arnone J (2008) Large annual net ecosystem CO2 uptake of a Mojave Desert ecosystem. Glob Change Biol 14:1475–1487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wu Z, Dijkstra P, Koch G, Penuelas J, Hungate B (2011) Responses of terrestrial ecosystems to temperature and precipitation change: a meta-analysis of experimental manipulation. Glob Change Biol 17:927–942CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Xie J, Li Y, Zhai C, Li C, Lan Z (2008) CO2 absorption by alkaline soils and its implication to the global carbon cycle. Environ Geol 56:953–961CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Zelikova T, Housman D, Grote E, Neher D, Belnap J (2012) Warming and increased precipitation frequency on the Colorado plateau: implications for biological soil crusts and soil processes. Plant Soil 355:265–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Xochi Campos
    • 1
  • Matthew J. Germino
    • 2
  • Marie-Anne de Graaff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesBoise State UniversityBoiseUSA
  2. 2.US Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science CenterBoiseUSA

Personalised recommendations