Land management trumps the effects of climate change and elevated CO2 on grassland functioning


  • Aurélie Thébault,

    1. Laboratory of Ecological Systems (ECOS), Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne EPFL, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), Lausanne, Switzerland
    2. Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Site Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
    3. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author
    • These authors equally contributed to this work.

  • Pierre Mariotte,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
    Search for more papers by this author
    • These authors equally contributed to this work.

  • Christopher J. Lortie,

    1. Department of Biology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Andrew S. MacDougall

    1. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author


  1. Grasslands cover ˜30% of the Earth's terrestrial surface and provide many ecosystem services. Many grasslands are heavily managed to maximize these services for human benefit, but the outcome of management is anticipated to be increasingly influenced by various aspects of climate change and elevated atmospheric CO2. The relative importance of global change vs. land management on grasslands is largely unknown.
  2. A meta-analysis is used here to examine drivers at both scales primarily targeting services provided by grasslands relating to plant productivity (above- and below-ground biomass) and soil processes (nutrients and soil respiration) in 38 manipulative experiments published in the last decade. We specifically target effects of (i) single and combined land management practices (LMs), (ii) single and combined factors relating to broad-scale climate change and elevated CO2, and (iii) combined management practices and changes to climate and CO2. Collectively, this examines the general efficacy of global change models in predicting changes to grassland functioning.
  3. We found that combinations of management practices had approximately double the explanatory power for variation in grassland services compared with individual or interactive effects of factors associated with climate change and CO2. These interacting management practices such as nutrient additions and defoliation predominantly influenced functions associated with productivity or biomass both below and above ground. The effects of interacting factors of climate and CO2 influenced a wider range of ecosystem functions, but the magnitude of these effects was relatively smaller.
  4. Interactions between management practices or between climate change/CO2 factors always had higher explanatory power than any factor in isolation indicating that multivariate synergistic models of environmental change can better describe impacts on ecosystem function in plant communities (e.g. relative to univariate climate-based models). Given that the magnitude and direction (positive or negative) of the interactions varied widely, this also implies that the outcomes of these multivariate interactions can vary spatially, temporally or by immediate context (e.g. management prescriptions).
  5. Synthesis. Although our work confirms how climate change and CO2 can affect many ecosystem-based functional attributes, it suggests that combinations of LMs remain the dominant set of factors in determining the performance of grassland plant communities. Land management may thus be critical for influencing projected responses to future climate change and elevated CO2 in models of grassland function at least for factors relating to primary production.