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Response of aboveground carbon balance to long-term, experimental enhancements in precipitation seasonality is contingent on plant community type in cold-desert rangelands

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Semi-arid rangelands are important carbon (C) pools at global scales. However, the degree of net C storage or release in water-limited systems is a function of precipitation amount and timing, as well as plant community composition. In northern latitudes of western North America, C storage in cold-desert ecosystems could increase with boosts in wintertime precipitation, in which climate models predict, due to increases in wintertime soil water storage that enhance summertime productivity. However, there are few long-term, manipulative field-based studies investigating how rangelands will respond to altered precipitation amount or timing. We measured aboveground C pools and fluxes at leaf, soil, and ecosystem scales over a single growing season in plots that had 200 mm of supplemental precipitation added in either winter or summer for the past 21 years, in shrub- and exotic-bunchgrass-dominated garden plots. At our cold-desert site (298 mm precipitation during the study year), we hypothesized that increased winter precipitation would stimulate the aboveground C uptake and storage relative to ambient conditions, especially in plots containing shrubs. Our hypotheses were generally supported: ecosystem C uptake and long-term biomass accumulation were greater in winter- and summer-irrigated plots compared to control plots in both vegetation communities. However, substantial increases in the aboveground biomass occurred only in winter-irrigated plots that contained shrubs. Our findings suggest that increases in winter precipitation will enhance C storage of this widespread ecosystem, and moreso in shrub- compared to grass-dominated communities.

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We thank Roger Blew and Amy Forman at Gonzales-Stoller Surveillance for logistical support, as well as Ryann Mata and Cassidy Howarth for help with data collection and analysis assistance in the field and lab. We also thank the three anonymous reviewers for their comments that substantially improved our original manuscript. This research was funded by Idaho EPSCoR (KR, MJG), the Northwest Climate Science Center (MJG, KR), Idaho State University (KR), the Geological Society of America (KM), as well as the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s Partners in Science program (AB). Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Author contribution statement

KM, KR, and MJG conceived and designed the experiments. KM, AB, and KR collected the field data. KM, KR, and AB analyzed the data. KM, KR, and AB wrote the manuscript. All authors provided editorial advice.

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Correspondence to Keith Reinhardt.

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Communicated by Heather Throop.

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McAbee, K., Reinhardt, K., Germino, M.J. et al. 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, 861–874 (2017).

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