Plant Ecology

, Volume 218, Issue 3, pp 317–328 | Cite as

Drought timing differentially affects above- and belowground productivity in a mesic grassland

  • Elsie M. DentonEmail author
  • John D. Dietrich
  • Melinda D. Smith
  • Alan K. Knapp


Climate models forecast an intensification of the global hydrological cycle with droughts becoming more frequent and severe, and shifting to times when they have been historically uncommon. Droughts, or prolonged periods of precipitation deficiency, are characteristic of most temperate grasslands, yet few experiments have explored how variation in the seasonal timing of drought may impact ecosystem function. We investigated the response of above- and belowground net primary production (ANPP & BNPP) to altered drought timing in a mesic grassland in NE Kansas. Moderate drought treatments (25% reduction from the mean growing season precipitation [GSP]) were imposed by erecting rainout shelters in late spring (LSP), early summer (ESM), and mid-summer (MSM, n = 10 plots/treatment). These treatments were compared to two controls (long-term average GSP [LTA] and ambient GSP [AMB]) and a wet treatment (+30% of the long-term average GSP [WET]). We found that LSP drought did not significantly reduce ANPP relative to control plots while the ESM and MSM drought did despite equivalent reductions in soil moisture. In contrast, the WET treatment did not affect ANPP. Neither the WET nor the drought treatments altered BNPP as compared to the controls. Our results suggest that forecasts of ecosystem responses to climate change will be improved if both the seasonal timing of alterations in precipitation as well as differential responses of above- and belowground productivity to drought are incorporated into models.


Grasslands Drought timing Climate change Aboveground net primary production Belowground net primary production 



We would like to thank the many people who have worked at Konza Prairie Biological Station over the years that have made comparison to the long-term record possible, as well at the National Climate Data Center for providing such accessible climate records online. The assistance from the Kansas State Soil Testing Lab was also invaluable. In addition, a large thanks goes out to all those individuals who, through their time and labor, made the present experiment a success: J. O’Malley, L. Baur, M. Johnson, J. Carroll, A. Czerwinski, S. Mackenzie, K. Dennison, M. Merrill, W. Mowll, A. Hoffman, J. Gray, B. Leinwetter, F. Chaves Rodriguez, P. O’Neal, and J. Larkin. Finally, additional thanks go to J. Hoeting for assistance in analyzing our results. Support was provided by the National Science Foundation Konza Long-Term Ecological Research program.


This study was supported in part by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Konza Long-Term Ecological Research program and the NSF Macrosystems Biology Program’s support of the Extreme Drought in Grasslands Experiment (EDGE) project.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11258_2016_690_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (516 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 516 kb)


  1. Baer SG, Blair JM, Collins SL, Knapp AK (2003) Soil resources regulate productivity and diversity in newly established tallgrass prairie. Ecology 84:724–735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bates JD, Svejcar T, Miller RF, Angell RA (2006) The effects of precipitation timing on sagebrush steppe vegetation. J Arid Environ 64:670–697CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blair JM (1997) Fire, N availability, and plant response in grasslands: a test of the transient maxima hypothesis. Ecology 78:2359–2368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Briggs JM (1972-present) Konza prairie fire history. Data code KFH011. Accessed 2013
  5. Briggs JM (1982-present) Daily weather data. Data code AWE012. Accessed 2013
  6. 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 Bot 82:1024–1030CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Briggs JM, Knapp AK (2001) Determinants of C3 forb growth and production in a C4 dominated grassland. Plant Ecol 152:93–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Byrne KM, Lauenroth WK, Adler PB (2013) Contrasting effects of precipitation manipulations on production in two sites within the central grassland region, USA. Ecosystems 16:1039–1051CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Chen G et al (2012) Drought in the Southern United States over the 20th century: variability and its impacts on terrestrial ecosystem productivity and carbon storage. Clim Chang 114:379–397CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cherwin K, Knapp A (2012) Unexpected patterns of sensitivity to drought in three semi-arid grasslands. Oecologia 169:845–852CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Chou WW, Silver WL, Jackson RD, Thompson AW, Allen-Diaz B (2008) The sensitivity of annual grassland carbon cycling to the quantity and timing of rainfall. Glob Chang Biol 14:1382–1394CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Christensen JH et al (2007) Regional climate projections In: Solomon S, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, Miller HL (eds) Climate change 2007: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USAGoogle Scholar
  13. de Vries FT, Liiri ME, Bjørnlund L, Setälä HM, Christensen S, Bardgett RD (2012) Legacy effects of drought on plant growth and the soil food web. Oecologia 170:821–833CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Derner JD et al (2003) Above- and below-ground responses of C3–C4 species mixtures to elevated CO2 and soil water availability. Glob Chang Biol 9:452–460CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dietrich JD, Smith MD (2016) The effect of timing of growing season drought on flowering of a dominant C4 grass. Oecologia 181(2):391–399CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Dunn OJ (1961) Multiple comparisons among means. J Am Stat Assoc 56:52–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Epstein HE, Burke IC, Mosier AR (1998) Plant effects on spatial and temporal patterns of nitrogen cycling in shortgrass steppe. Ecosystems 1:374–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Evans SE, Burke IC (2013) Carbon and nitrogen decoupling under an 11-year drought in the shortgrass steppe. Ecosystems 16:20–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fay PA, Carlisle JD, Knapp AK, Blair JM, Collins SL (2003) Productivity responses to altered rainfall patterns in a C4-dominated grassland. Oecologia 137:245–251CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Forman SL, Oglesby R, Webb RS (2001) Temporal and spatial patterns of Holocene dune activity on the Great Plains of North America: megadroughts and climate links. Glob Planet Chang 29:1–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Frank DA (2007) Drought effects on above- and belowground production of a grazed temperate grassland ecosystem. Oecologia 152:131–139CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Gamon JA et al (1995) Relationships between NDVI, canopy structure, and photosynthesis in three Californian vegetation types. Ecol Appl 5:28–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gill RA et al (2002) Using simple environmental variables to estimate belowground productivity in grasslands. Global Ecol Biogeogr 11:79–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hafid RE, Smith DH, Karrou M, Samir K (1998) Morphological attributes associated with early-season drought tolerance in spring durum wheat in a Mediterranean environment. Euphytica 101:273–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hayes DC, Seastedt TR (1987) Root dynamics of tallgrass prairie in wet and dry years. Can J Botany 65:787–791CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Heckathorm SA, DeLucia EH (1991) Effect of leaf rolling on gas exchange and leaf temperature of Andropogon gerardii and Spartina pectinata. Bot Gaz 152(3):263–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Heim RR (2002) A review of twentieth-century drought indices used in the United States. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 83:1149–1165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Heitschmidt RK, Vermeire LT (2006) Can abundant summer precipitation counter losses in herbage production caused by spring drought? Rangel Ecol Manag 59:392–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hoover DL (2014) Ecological responses to climate extremes in a mesic grassland. Dissertation, Colorado State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  30. Hsu JS, Powell J, Adler PB (2012) Sensitivity of mean annual primary production to precipitation. Glob Chang Biol 18:2246–2255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Huxman TE et al (2004) Convergence across biomes to a common rain-use efficiency. Nature 425:652–654Google Scholar
  32. IPCC (2013) Summary for Policymakers. In: Stocker TF, Qin D, Plattner G-K, Tignor M, Allen SK, Boschung J, Nauels A, Xia Y, Bex V, Midgley PM (eds) Climate Change 2013: The physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USAGoogle Scholar
  33. Ji L, Peters AJ (2003) Assessing vegetation response to drought in the northern Great Plains using vegetation and drought indices. Remote Sens Environ 87:85–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jongen M, Pereira JS, Aires LMI, Pio CA (2011) The effects of drought and timing of precipitation on the inter-annual variation in ecosystem-atmosphere exchange in a Mediterranean grassland. Agr For Meteorol 151:595–606CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kang M, Dai C, Ji W, Jiang Y, Yuan Z, Chen HYH (2013) Biomass and its allocation in relation to temperature, precipitation, and soil nutrients in Inner Mongolia grasslands, China. PLoS ONE 7:e69561CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Knapp AK, Smith MD (2001) Variation among biomes in temporal dynamics of aboveground primary production. Science 291:481–484CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Knapp AK, Briggs JM, Hartnett DC, Collins SL (eds) (1998) Grassland dynamics: long-term ecological research in tallgrass prairie. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Knapp AK et al (2002) Rainfall variability, carbon cycling, and plant species diversity in a mesic grassland. Science 298:2202–2205CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Kong DL, Lu XT, Jiang LL, Wu HF, Miao Y, Kardol P (2013) Inter-annual precipitation fluctuations alter the responses of above- and belowground biomass to water and N enrichment. Biogeosciences Discuss 10:13427–13454CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kunkel KE, Liang X-Z (2004) GCM simulations of the climate in the central United States. J Clim 18:1016–1031CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kunkel KE et al (2013) Regional climate trends and scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. Part 4. Climate of the U.S. Great Plains NOAA Technical Report NESMDIS, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington DC, USAGoogle Scholar
  42. La Pierre KJ (2013) Drivers of grassland community structure and ecosystem function: The role of biotic factors in determining the ecosystem response to alterations in resource availability. Dissertation, Yale UniversityGoogle Scholar
  43. La Pierre KJ et al (2011) Explaining temporal variation in above-ground productivity in a mesic grassland: the role of climate and flowering. J Ecol 99:1250–1262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lauenroth WK, Sala OE (1992) Long-term forage production of North American shortgrass steppe. Ecol Appl 2:397–403CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. McCulley RL, Burke IC, Lauenroth WK (2009) Conservation of nitrogen increases with precipitation across a major grassland gradient in the Central Great Plains of North America. Oecologia 159(3):571–581CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Meehl GA et al (2006) Climate change projections for the twenty-first century and climate change commitment in the CCSM3. J Clim 19:2597–2616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Montagnoli A, Terzaghi M, Scippa GS, Chiatante D (2014) Heterorhizy can lead to underestimation of fine-root production when using mesh-based techniques. Acta Oecol 58:84–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. National Climate Data Center’s Global Historical Climatology Network, Manhattan, KS. Stations ID: USC00144972. Accessed 2012
  49. Olsen JT, Caudle KL, Johnson LC, Saer SG, Maricle BR (2013) Environmental and genetic variation in leaf anatomy among populations of Andropogon gerardii (Poaceae) along a precipitation gradient. Am J Bot 100(10):1957–1968CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  50. Paruelo JM, Lauenroth WK (1995) Regional patterns of normalized difference vegetation index in North American shrublands and grasslands. Ecology 76(6):1888–1898CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Persson H (1979) Fine-root production, mortality and decomposition in forest ecosystems. Vegetatio 41:101–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 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 181:230–242CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Rosner B (1983) Percentage points for a generalized ESMD monay-outlier procedure. Technometrics 25:165–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sala OE, Parton WJ, Joyce LTA, Lauenroth WK (1988) Primary production of the central grassland region of the United States. Ecology 69:40–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sala OE, Gherardi LTA, Reichmann L, Jobbágy E, Peters D (2012) Legacies of precipitation fluctuations on primary production: theory and data synthesis. Philos Trans R Soc B 367:3125–3144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Samson FB, Knopf FL, Ostlie WR (2004) Great plains ecosystems: past, present, and future. Wildl Soc Bull 32(1):6–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Seastedt T, Knapp A (1993) Consequences of nonequilibrium resource availability across multiple time scales: the transient maxima hypothesis. Am Nat 141:621–633CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Seneviratne SI, Pal JS, Eltahir EAB, Schar C (2002) Summer dryness in a warmer climate: a process study with a regional climate model. Clim Dyn 20:69–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Simane B, Peacock JM, Struik PC (1993) Differences in developmental plasticity and growth rate among drought-resistant and susceptible cultivars of durum wheat (Triticum turgidum L. var. durum). Plant Soil 157:155–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sindhøj E, Hansson A-C, Andrén O, Kätterer T, Marissink M, Pettersson R (2000) Root dynamics in a semi-natural grassland in relation to atmospheric carbon dioxide enrichment, soil water and shoot biomass. Plant Soil 223:253–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Smith MD, Knapp AK (2003) Dominant species maintain ecosystem function with non-random species loss. Ecol Lett 6:509–517CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Stahle DW, Cleaveland MK (1988) Texas drought history reconstructed and analyzed from 1698 to 1980. J Clim 1:59–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Svoray T, Karnieli A (2011) Rainfall, topography and primary production relationships in a semiarid ecosystem. Ecohydrology 4:56–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Weltzin JF et al (2003) Assessing the response of terrestrial ecosystems to potential changes in precipitation. Bioscience 53:941–952CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wilcox KR, von Fischer JC, Muscha JM, Petersen MK, Knapp AK (2014) Contrasting above- and belowground sensitivity of three Great Plains grasslands to altered rainfall regimes. Glob Chang Biol 21:335–344CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Wu Z, Dijkstra P, Koch GW, Peñuelas J, Hungate BA (2011) Responses of terrestrial ecosystems to temperature and precipitation change: a meta-analysis of experimental manipulation. Glob Chang Biol 17:927–942CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Xu X, Niu S, Sherry RA, Zhou X, Zhou J, Luo Y (2012) Interannual variability in responses of belowground net primary productivity (NPP) and NPP partitioning to long-term warming and clipping in a tallgrass prairie. Glob Chang Biol 18:1648–1656CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Xu X, Sherry RA, Niu S, Li D, Luo Y (2013) Net primary productivity and rain-use efficiency as affected by warming, altered precipitation, and clipping in a mixed-grass prairie. Glob Chang Biol 19:2753–2764CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Zhang H, DeWald LE, Kolb TE, Koepke DF (2011) Genetic variation in ecophysiological and survival responses to drought in two native grasses: Koeleria macrantha and Elymus elymoides. West N Am Nat 71(1):25–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Zhou X, Fei S, Sherry R, Luo Y (2012) Root biomass dynamics under experimental warming and doubled precipitation in a tallgrass prairie. Ecosystems 15:542–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elsie M. Denton
    • 1
    Email author
  • John D. Dietrich
    • 2
  • Melinda D. Smith
    • 2
  • Alan K. Knapp
    • 2
  1. 1.United States Department of AgricultureAgricultural Research Service, Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research CenterBurnsUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biology and Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

Personalised recommendations