Impact of intra- versus inter-annual snow depth variation on water relations and photosynthesis for two Great Basin Desert shrubs

Abstract

Snowfall provides the majority of soil water in certain ecosystems of North America. We tested the hypothesis that snow depth variation affects soil water content, which in turn drives water potential (Ψ) and photosynthesis, over 10 years for two widespread shrubs of the western USA. Stem Ψ (Ψ stem) and photosynthetic gas exchange [stomatal conductance to water vapor (g s), and CO2 assimilation (A)] were measured in mid-June each year from 2004 to 2013 for Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana (Asteraceae) and Purshia tridentata (Rosaceae). Snow fences were used to create increased or decreased snow depth plots. Snow depth on +snow plots was about twice that of ambient plots in most years, and 20 % lower on −snow plots, consistent with several down-scaled climate model projections. Maximal soil water content at 40- and 100-cm depths was correlated with February snow depth. For both species, multivariate ANOVA (MANOVA) showed that Ψ stem, g s, and A were significantly affected by intra-annual variation in snow depth. Within years, MANOVA showed that only A was significantly affected by spatial snow depth treatments for A. tridentata, and Ψ stem was significantly affected by snow depth for P. tridentata. Results show that stem water relations and photosynthetic gas exchange for these two cold desert shrub species in mid-June were more affected by inter-annual variation in snow depth by comparison to within-year spatial variation in snow depth. The results highlight the potential importance of changes in inter-annual variation in snowfall for future shrub photosynthesis in the western Great Basin Desert.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Student Challenge Awards Program (SCAP) of Earthwatch, and the M. Theo Kearney Foundation for Soil Science for financial support. This research was also supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science (Biological and Environmental Research) through the Western Regional Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Northern Arizona University (Merriam-Powell Center 35UZ-01). We thank the staff of the Valentine Eastern Sierra University of California Natural Reserve for housing and other logistics. The enthusiastic assistance of David T. Tissue, Lisa Patrick Bentley, Rosa Schneider, Lucy Lynn, Jack Rusk, Charles Weiss, and numerous Earthwatch SCAP volunteers helped make this research possible. We acknowledge the modeling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) Working Group on Coupled Modelling for their roles in making available the WRCP CMIP3 and CMIP5 multi-model data set. Support for these data sets is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Conflict of interest

The experiments described herein comply with the current laws of the United States of America. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Michael E. Loik.

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Communicated by David A. Pyke.

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Loik, M.E., Griffith, A.B., Alpert, H. et al. Impact of intra- versus inter-annual snow depth variation on water relations and photosynthesis for two Great Basin Desert shrubs. Oecologia 178, 403–414 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3224-7

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Keywords

  • Antelope bitterbrush
  • Climate change
  • Sagebrush
  • Soil water
  • Water potential