Quantifying regional scale ecosystem response to changes in precipitation: Not all rain is created equal

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Abstract

[1] Primary productivity and vegetation cover are strongly related to how precipitation is partitioned into surface discharge, storage, and evapotranspiration (ET). Thus, quantifying feedbacks between changes in precipitation and vegetation at regional scales is a critical step toward predicting both carbon balance and water resources as climate and land cover change. We used a catchment-based approach to quantify partitioning of precipitation and compared these hydrologic fluxes to remotely sensed vegetation greenness (NDVI) in 86 U.S. catchments between 2000 and 2008. The fraction of precipitation potentially available to vegetation (catchment wetting; W) ranged from 0.64 to 0.99 demonstrating that up to 36% of precipitation was not available to vegetation. The ratio of ET:W (Horton Index (HI)), ranged from 0.07 to 1.0 demonstrating even greater variability in the fraction of catchment wetting used as ET. Negative slopes between annual Horton Index and maximum annual NDVI values indicated water limitation during dry years in most catchment ecosystems. Not surprisingly, grasslands were more sensitive to drying than forests. However, in nine of the wettest (HI < 0.66) catchment ecosystems, NDVI values increased as HI increased suggesting greater vegetation productivity under drier conditions. Our results demonstrate that catchment-scale hydrologic partitioning provides information on both the fractions of precipitation available to and used by vegetation. Their ratio (HI) identifies shifts between water and energy limitation, and differential sensitivity to drying based on vegetation type within catchment ecosystems. Consequently, catchment-scale partitioning provides useful information for scaling point observations and quantifying regional ecohydrological response to climate or vegetation change.

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