Contrasting above- and belowground sensitivity of three Great Plains grasslands to altered rainfall regimes



Intensification of the global hydrological cycle with atmospheric warming is expected to increase interannual variation in precipitation amount and the frequency of extreme precipitation events. Although studies in grasslands have shown sensitivity of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) to both precipitation amount and event size, we lack equivalent knowledge for responses of belowground net primary productivity (BNPP) and NPP. We conducted a 2-year experiment in three US Great Plains grasslands – the C4-dominated shortgrass prairie (SGP; low ANPP) and tallgrass prairie (TGP; high ANPP), and the C3-dominated northern mixed grass prairie (NMP; intermediate ANPP) – to test three predictions: (i) both ANPP and BNPP responses to increased precipitation amount would vary inversely with mean annual precipitation (MAP) and site productivity; (ii) increased numbers of extreme rainfall events during high-rainfall years would affect high and low MAP sites differently; and (iii) responses belowground would mirror those aboveground. We increased growing season precipitation by as much as 50% by augmenting natural rainfall via (i) many (11–13) small or (ii) fewer (3–5) large watering events, with the latter coinciding with naturally occurring large storms. Both ANPP and BNPP increased with water addition in the two C4 grasslands, with greater ANPP sensitivity in TGP, but greater BNPP and NPP sensitivity in SGP. ANPP and BNPP did not respond to any rainfall manipulations in the C3-dominated NMP. Consistent with previous studies, fewer larger (extreme) rainfall events increased ANPP relative to many small events in SGP, but event size had no effect in TGP. Neither system responded consistently above- and belowground to event size; consequently, total NPP was insensitive to event size. The diversity of responses observed in these three grassland types underscores the challenge of predicting responses relevant to C cycling to forecast changes in precipitation regimes even within relatively homogeneous biomes such as grasslands.