PRS Publications

Revisiting the bucket model: Long-term effects of rainfall variability and nitrogen enrichment on net primary production in a desert grassland

Brown, R. F. and S. L. Collins. 2024.


The predicted intensification of the North American Monsoon is expected to alter growing season rainfall patterns in the southwestern United States. These patterns, which have historically been characterized by frequent small rain events, are anticipated to shift towards a more extreme precipitation regime consisting of fewer, but larger rain events. Furthermore, human activities are contributing to increased atmospheric nitrogen deposition throughout this dryland region. Alterations in rainfall size and frequency, along with changes in nitrogen availability, are likely to have significant consequences for above-ground net primary production (ANPP) and plant community dynamics in drylands. The conceptual bucket model predicts that a shift towards fewer, but larger rain events could promote greater rates of ANPP in these regions by maintaining soil moisture availability above drought stress thresholds for longer periods during the growing season. However, only a few short-term studies have tested this hypothesis, and none have explored the interaction between altered rainfall patterns and nitrogen enrichment. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a 14-year rainfall addition and nitrogen fertilization experiment in a northern Chihuahuan Desert grassland to explore the long-term impacts of changes in monsoon rainfall size and frequency, along with chronic nitrogen enrichment, on ANPP (measured as peak biomass) and plant community dynamics. Contrary to bucket model predictions, small frequent rain events promoted comparable rates of ANPP to large infrequent rain events in the absence of nitrogen enrichment. It was only when nitrogen limitation was alleviated that large infrequent rain events resulted in the greatest ANPP. Furthermore, we found that nitrogen enrichment had the greatest impact on plant community composition under the small frequent rainfall regime. Synthesis. Our long-term field experiment highlights limitations of the bucket model by demonstrating that water and nitrogen availability sequentially limit dryland ecological processes. Specifically, our findings suggest that while water availability is the primary limiting factor for above-ground net primary production in these ecosystems, nitrogen limitation becomes increasingly important when water is not limiting. Moreover, our findings reveal that small frequent rain events play an important but underappreciated role in driving dryland ecosystem dynamics.