• abiotic;
  • C : N;
  • CO2;
  • decomposition;
  • grassland;
  • holocellulose;
  • nitrogen;
  • photodegradation;
  • shortgrass steppe;
  • ultraviolet (UV) radiation


We examined the effect of altered levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation (280–400 nm) and different amounts of precipitation on the decomposition rates of litter of contrasting carbon to nitrogen ratio (C : N) in a 3-year field experiment in a shortgrass steppe (SGS) ecosystem. UV radiation was either blocked or passed under clear plastic tents where precipitation was applied to simulate a very dry or very wet year. These treatments minimized or maximized the abiotic component (UV) or the biotic component (biological activity of decomposer organisms) of decomposition to assess potential interactions between the two. Initial litter chemistry varied in response to having been grown under ambient or elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations. While precipitation and litter chemistry were the most important drivers in decomposition in this system, UV radiation increased decomposition rates under dry conditions in litter with higher C : N ratios. Exposure to UV radiation slightly increased the amount of holocellulose that was lost from the litter. UV exposure did not affect the decomposition of the lignin fraction. Increased decomposition with UV radiation was accompanied by a decrease in N immobilization over the summer months. These results suggest that the effects of UV radiation on decomposition rates may be primarily abiotic, caused by direct photochemical degradation of the litter. Our results demonstrate that the role of UV radiation in litter decomposition in semiarid systems depends on the aridity of the system and the chemistry of the litter.