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Short-Term Effects of Changing Precipitation Patterns on Shrub-Steppe Grasslands: Seasonal Watering Is More Important than Frequency of Watering Events

Densmore-McCulloch, J.A., D.L. Thompson and L.H. Fraser. 2016.


Climate change is expected to alter precipitation patterns. Droughts may become longer and more frequent, and the timing and intensity of precipitation may change. We tested how shifting precipitation patterns, both seasonally and by frequency of events, affects soil nitrogen availability, plant biomass and diversity in a shrub-steppe temperate grassland along a natural productivity gradient in Lac du Bois Grasslands Protected Area near Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. We manipulated seasonal watering patterns by either exclusively watering in the spring or the fall. To simulate spring precipitation we restricted precipitation inputs in the fall, then added 50% more water than the long term average in the spring, and vice-versa for the fall precipitation treatment. Overall, the amount of precipitation remained roughly the same. We manipulated the frequency of rainfall events by either applying water weekly (frequent) or monthly (intensive). After 2 years, changes in the seasonality of watering had greater effects on plant biomass and diversity than changes in the frequency of watering. Fall watering reduced biomass and increased species diversity, while spring watering had little effect. The reduction in biomass in fall watered treatments was due to a decline in grasses, but not forbs. Plant available N, measured by Plant Root Simulator (PRS)-probes, increased from spring to summer to fall, and was higher in fall watered treatments compared to spring watered treatments when measured in the fall. The only effect observed due to frequency of watering events was greater extractable soil N in monthly applied treatments compared to weekly watering treatments. Understanding the effects of changing precipitation patterns on grasslands will allow improved grassland conservation and management in the face of global climatic change, and here we show that if precipitation is more abundant in the fall, compared to the spring, grassland primary productivity will likely be negatively affected.