Journal of Plant Research

, Volume 128, Issue 2, pp 283–294 | Cite as

Productivity responses of desert vegetation to precipitation patterns across a rainfall gradient

  • Fang Li
  • Wenzhi ZhaoEmail author
  • Hu Liu
Regular Paper


The influences of previous-year precipitation and episodic rainfall events on dryland plants and communities are poorly quantified in the temperate desert region of Northwest China. To evaluate the thresholds and lags in the response of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) to variability in rainfall pulses and seasonal precipitation along the precipitation-productivity gradient in three desert ecosystems with different precipitation regimes, we collected precipitation data from 2000 to 2012 in Shandan (SD), Linze (LZ) and Jiuquan (JQ) in northwestern China. Further, we extracted the corresponding MODIS Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, a proxy for ANPP) datasets at 250 m spatial resolution. We then evaluated different desert ecosystems responses using statistical analysis, and a threshold-delay model (TDM). TDM is an integrative framework for analysis of plant growth, precipitation thresholds, and plant functional type strategies that capture the nonlinear nature of plant responses to rainfall pulses. Our results showed that: (1) the growing season NDVIINT (INT stands for time-integrated) was largely correlated with the warm season (spring/summer) at our mildly-arid desert ecosystem (SD). The arid ecosystem (LZ) exhibited a different response, and the growing season NDVIINT depended highly on the previous year’s fall/winter precipitation and ANPP. At the extremely arid site (JQ), the variability of growing season NDVIINT was equally correlated with the cool- and warm-season precipitation; (2) some parameters of threshold-delay differed among the three sites: while the response of NDVI to rainfall pulses began at about 5 mm for all the sites, the maximum thresholds in SD, LZ, and JQ were about 55, 35 and 30 mm respectively, increasing with an increase in mean annual precipitation. By and large, more previous year’s fall/winter precipitation, and large rainfall events, significantly enhanced the growth of desert vegetation, and desert ecosystems should be much more adaptive under likely future scenarios of increasing fall/winter precipitation and large rainfall events. These results highlight the inherent complexity in predicting how desert ecosystems will respond to future fluctuations in precipitation.


Aboveground net primary productivity Previous precipitation Rainfall events Temperate desert regions Threshold-delay model 



This study was supported by the National Science Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of China (Grant No. 41125002) and the general program of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41071019). We thank Dr. Kathryn Piatek and Dr. Marian Rhys for language assistance. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments, which improved the overall quality of the manuscript.


  1. Bai YF, Han XG, Wu JG, Chen ZZ, Li LH (2004) Ecosystem stability and compensatory effects in the inner Mongolia grassland. Nature 431:181–184CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Berger KA, Wang Y, Mather TN (2013) MODIS-derived land surface moisture conditions for monitoring blacklegged tick habitat in southern New England. Int J Remote Sen 34:73–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Blackman CJ, Brodribb TJ, Jordan GJ (2009) Leaf hydraulics and drought stress: response, recovery and survivorship in four woody temperate plant species. Plant Cell Environ 32:1584–1595CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bradford JB, Lauenroth WK, Burke IC, Paruelo JM (2006) The influence of climate, soils, weather, and land use on primary production and biomass seasonality in the US Great Plains. Ecosystems 9:934–950CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brodribb TJ, Bowman DMJS, Nichols S, Delzon S, Burlett R (2010) Xylem function and growth rate interact to determine recovery rates after exposure to extreme water deficit. New Phytol 188:533–542CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. 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
  7. Camberlin P, Martiny N, Philippon N, Richard Y (2007) Determinants of the interannual relationships between remote sensed photosynthetic activity and rainfall in tropical Africa. Remote Sens Environ 106:199–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Emmerich WE, Verdugo CL (2008) Precipitation thresholds for CO2 uptake in grass and shrub plant communities on walnut gulch experimental watershed. Water Resour Res 44:5Google Scholar
  9. Fabricante I, Oesterheld M, Paruelo JM (2009) Annual and seasonal variation of NDVI explained by current and previous precipitation across Northern Patagonia. J Arid Environ 73:745–753CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fatichi S, Ivanov VY (2014) Interannual variability of evapotranspiration and vegetation productivity. Water Resour Res 50:3275–3294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 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
  12. Fay PA, Kaufman DM, Nippert JB, Carlisle JD, Harper CW (2008) Changes in grassland ecosystem function due to extreme rainfall events: implications for responses to climate change. Global Change Biol 14:1600–1608CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gamon JA, Huemmrich KF, Stone RS, Tweedie CE (2013) Spatial and temporal variation in primary productivity (NDVI) of coastal Alaskan tundra: decreased vegetation growth following earlier snowmelt. Remote Sens Environ 129:144–153CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gao Q, Reynolds JF (2003) Historical shrub-grass transitions in the northern Chihuahuan Desert: modeling the effects of shifting rainfall seasonality and event size over a landscape gradient. Global Change Biol 9:1475–1493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hamerlynck EP, Scott RL, Barron-Gafford GA, Cavanaugh ML, Moran M, Huxman TE (2012a) Cool-season whole-plant gas exchange of exotic and native semiarid bunchgrasses. Plant Ecol 213:1229–1239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hamerlynck EP, Scott RL, Stone JJ (2012b) Soil moisture and ecosystem function responses of desert grassland varying in vegetative cover to a saturating precipitation pulse. Ecohydrology 5:297–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hamerlynck E, Scott R, Barron-Gafford GA (2013) Consequences of cool-season drought-induced plant mortality to Chihuahuan Desert grassland ecosystem and soil respiration dynamics. Ecosystems 16:1178–1191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Heisler-White JL, Knapp AK, Kelly EF (2008) Increasing precipitation event size increases aboveground net primary productivity in a semi-arid grassland. Oecologia 158:129–140CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Heisler-White JL, Blair JM, Kelly EF, Harmoney K, Knapp AK (2009) Contingent productivity responses to more extreme rainfall regimes across a grassland biome. Global Change Biol 15:2894–2904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Horion S, Cornet Y, Erpicum M, Tychon B (2013) Studying interactions between climate variability and vegetation dynamic using a phenology based approach. Int J Appl Earth Obs 20:20–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Huxman TE, Cable JM, Ignace DD, Eilts JA, English NB, Weltzin J, Williams DG (2004a) Response of net ecosystem gas exchange to a simulated precipitation pulse in a semi-arid grassland: the role of native versus non-native grasses and soil texture. Oecologia 141:295–305CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Huxman TE et al (2004b) Precipitation pulses and carbon fluxes in semiarid and arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:254–268CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. IPCC (2007) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribu-tion of Working Group 1 to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, Cambrid ge University PressGoogle Scholar
  24. Jankju M (2008) Individual performances and the interaction between arid land plants affected by the growth season water pulses. Arid Land Res Manag 22:123–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jenerette GD, Scott RL, Huxman TE (2008) Whole ecosystem metabolic pulses following precipitation events. Funct Ecol 22:924–930CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Knapp AK et al (2002) Rainfall variability, carbon cycling, and plant species diversity in a mesic grassland. Science 298:2202–2205CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Lauenroth WK, Sala OE (1992) Long-term forage production of north-American shortgrass steppe. Ecol Appl 2:397–403CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Li F, Zhao W, Liu H (2013) The response of aboveground net primary productivity of desert vegetation to rainfall pulse in the temperate desert region of northwest china. PLoS One 8:e73003CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Loik ME (2007) Sensitivity of water relations and photosynthesis to summer precipitation pulses for Artemisia tridentata and Purshia tridentata. Plant Ecol 191:95–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Milchunas DG, Forwood JR, Lauenroth WK (1994) Productivity of long-term grazing treatments in response to seasonal precipitation. J Range Manage 47:133–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Muldavin EH, Moore DI, Collins SL, Wetherill KR, Lightfoot DC (2008) Aboveground net primary production dynamics in a northern Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. Oecologia 155:123–132CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Nobel PS (1980) Water-vapor conductance and co2 uptake for leaves of a C4 desert grass, Hilaria–Rigida. Ecology 61:252–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Oesterheld M, Loreti J, Semmartin M, Sala OE (2001) Inter-annual variation in primary production of a semi-arid grassland related to previous-year production. J Veg Sci 12:137–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ogle K, Reynolds JF (2004) Plant responses to precipitation in desert ecosystems: integrating functional types, pulses, thresholds, and delays. Oecologia 141:282–294CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Ospina S, Rusch GM, Pezo D, Casanoves F, Sinclair FL (2012) More stable productivity of semi natural grasslands than sown pastures in a seasonally dry climate. PLoS ONE 7:e35555CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Paruelo JM, Epstein HE, Lauenroth WK, Burke IC (1997) ANPP estimates from NDVI for the Central Grassland Region of the United States. Ecology 78:953–958CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Plaut JA, Wadsworth WD, Pangle R, Yepez EA, McDowell NG, Pockman WT (2013) Reduced transpiration response to precipitation pulses precedes mortality in a piñon-juniper woodland subject to prolonged drought. New Phytol 200:375–387CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Potts DL et al (2006) Antecedent moisture and seasonal precipitation influence the response of anopy-scale carbon and water exchange to rainfall pulses in a semi-arid grassland. New Phytol 170:849–860CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Reichmann LG, Sala OE, Peters DPC (2013) Precipitation legacies in desert grassland primary production occur through previous-year tiller density. Ecology 94:435–443CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Resco V, Ewers BE, Sun W, Huxman TE, Weltzin JF, Williams DG (2009) Drought-induced hydraulic limitations constrain leaf gas exchange recovery after precipitation pulses in the C-3 woody legume, Prosopis velutina. New Phytol 181:672–682CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Reynolds JF, Kemp PR, Ogle K, Fernandez RJ (2004) Modifying the ‘pulse-reserve’ paradigm for deserts of North America: precipitation pulses, soil water, and plant responses. Oecologia 141:194–210CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. 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. The New phytol 181:230–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Robinson TMP, La Pierre KJ, Vadeboncoeur MA, Byrne KM, Thomey ML, Colby SE (2013) Seasonal, not annual precipitation drives community productivity across ecosystems. Oikos 122:727–738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Roca AL et al (2004) Mesozoic origin for West Indian insectivores. Nature 429:649–651CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Sala OE, Lauenroth WK (1982) Small rainfall events: an ecological role in semiarid regions. Oecologia 53:301–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sala OE, Gherardi LA, Reichmann L, Jobbagy E, Peters D (2012) Legacies of precipitation fluctuations on primary production: theory and data synthesis. Philos T Roy Soc B 367:3135–3144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Schwinning S, Sala OE (2004) Hierarchy of responses to resource pulses in and and semi-arid ecosystems. Oecologia 141:211–220CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Shafran-Nathan R, Svoray T, Perevolotsky A (2012) The resilience of annual vegetation primary production subjected to different climate change scenarios. Clim Change 118:227–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sponseller RA, Hall SJ, Huber DP, Grimm NB, Kaye JP, Clark CM, Collins SL (2012) Variation in monsoon precipitation drives spatial and temporal patterns of Larrea tridentata growth in the Sonoran Desert. Funct Ecol 26:750–758CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Svoray T, Karnieli A (2011) Rainfall, topography and primary production relationships in a semiarid ecosystem. Ecohydrology 4:56–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Swemmer AM, Knapp AK, Snyman HA (2007) Intra-seasonal precipitation patterns and above-ground productivity in three perennial grasslands. J Ecol 95:780–788CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Thomey ML, Collins SL, Vargas R, Johnson JE, Brown RF, Natvig DO, Friggens MT (2011) Effect of precipitation variability on net primary production and soil respiration in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland. Global Change Biol 17:1505–1515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Throop HL, Reichmann LG, Sala OE, Archer SR (2012) Response of dominant grass and shrub species to water manipulation: an ecophysiological basis for shrub invasion in a Chihuahuan Desert Grassland. Oecologia 169:373–383CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Wang H, Zhao WZ (2009) Change of soil physical properties in process of oasisization. J Desert Res 29:1109–1115Google Scholar
  55. Wang J, Rich PM, Price KP (2003) Temporal responses of NDVI to precipitation and temperature in the central great plains, USA. Int J Remote Sen 24:2345–2364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wang M, Su Y, Yang R, Yang X (2013) Allocation patterns of above- and belowground biomass in desert grassland in the middle reaches of Heihe River, Gansu Province, China. Acta Phytoecol Sinica 37:209–219Google Scholar
  57. Xiao JF, Moody A (2004) Photosynthetic activity of US biomes: responses to the spatial variability and seasonality of precipitation and temperature. Global Change Biol 10:437–451CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Yahdjian L, Sala OE (2006) Vegetation structure constrains primary production response to water availability in the patagonian steppe. Ecology 87:952–962CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Yang H, Wu M, Liu W, Zhang ZHE, Zhang N, Wan S (2011) Community structure and composition in response to climate change in a temperate steppe. Global Change Biol 17:452–465CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zeppel M, Macinnis-Ng CMO, Ford CR, Eamus D (2007) The response of sap flow to pulses of rain in a temperate Australian woodland. Plant Soil 305:121–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Zeppel MJB, Wilks JV, Lewis JD (2014) Impacts of extreme precipitation and seasonal changes in precipitation on plants. Biogeosciences 11:3083–3093CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Zhang B, Zhang H, Zhang K, Zhang MJ, Lin Q, Lu AX, Guo ZG (2007) Study on spatial diversification of soil moisture content of oasis and oasis-desert ecotone in the middle reaches of the Heihe River. Geographical Res 26:321-327Zhang G, Zhang Y, Dong J, Xiao X (2013a) Green-up dates in the Tibetan Plateau have continuously advanced from 1982 to 2011. PNAS 110:4309–4314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Zhang G, Zhang Y, Dong J, Xiao X (2013a) Green-up dates in the Tibetan Plateau have continuously advanced from 1982 to 2011. PNAS 110:4309–4314CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Zhang Y et al (2013b) Extreme precipitation patterns and reductions of terrestrial ecosystem production across biomes. J Geophys Res 118:148–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Zhao W, Liu B (2010) The response of sap flow in shrubs to rainfall pulses in the desert region of China. Agr Forest Meteorol 150:1297–1306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Zhao W, Liu H (2011) Precipitation pulses and ecosystem responses in arid and semiarid regions: a review. The J of Appl Ecol 22:243–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Zhou H, Zheng X-J, Tang L-S, Li Y (2013) Differences and similarities between water sources of Tamarix ramosissima, Nitraria sibirica and Reaumuria soongorica in the southeastern Junggar Basin. Chinese J of Plant Ecol 37:665–673CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Botanical Society of Japan and Springer Japan 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linze Inland River Basin Research Station, Key Laboratory of Inland River Basin Ecohydrology, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research InstituteChinese Academy of SciencesLanzhouChina

Personalised recommendations