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Plant Production Responses to Precipitation Differ Along an Elevation Gradient and Are Enhanced Under Extremes

  • Seth M. MunsonEmail author
  • Erin L. Bunting
  • John B. Bradford
  • Bradley J. Butterfield
  • Jennifer R. Gremer


The sensitivity of plant production to precipitation underlies the functioning of ecosystems. Studies that relate long-term mean annual precipitation and production across multiple sites (spatial relationship) or examine interannual linkages within a site (temporal relationship) can reveal biophysical controls over ecosystem function but have limited ability to infer responses to extreme changes in precipitation that may become more common under climate change. To overcome limitations of using a single approach, we integrated satellite- and ground-based estimates of production with a standardized, multi-site precipitation manipulation experiment across a grassland elevation gradient in the southwestern USA. The responsiveness of production to changes in precipitation followed the order: temporal (0.06–0.13 g m−2 mm−1) < spatial (0.21 g m−2 mm−1) < experimental relationship (0.25–0.42 g m−2 mm−1), suggesting that spatial and temporal relationships determined with satellite- and ground-based estimates cannot be extrapolated to determine the effect of extreme events. A strong production response to differences in mean annual precipitation across sites reinforces a regional control of water availability. Interannual sensitivity to precipitation was strongest at the low elevation grasslands, and the high elevation mixed conifer meadow had a large reduction in production in a drought year. Extreme experimental drought strongly reduced production in low elevation grasslands, but water addition had mixed effects. High elevation meadows were insensitive to both extreme drought and water addition. Our results highlight the importance of accounting for extreme climate regimes and site-level factors when scaling climate change effects up to regional and global scales.


biomass drought climate change grassland net primary production remote sensing southwestern USA 



This research was supported by the US Geological Survey National Climate Adaptation Science Center and the Ecosystems Mission Area. We thank Troy Wood, Stella Copeland, Austin Rueda, Kaitlyn Toledo, and Jonathan Paklaian for field assistance. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 626 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature (This is a U.S. government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seth M. Munson
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Erin L. Bunting
    • 3
  • John B. Bradford
    • 1
  • Bradley J. Butterfield
    • 2
  • Jennifer R. Gremer
    • 4
  1. 1.Southwest Biological Science CenterU.S. Geological SurveyFlagstaffUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  3. 3.Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial SciencesMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  4. 4.Department of Evolution and EcologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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