The annual carbon (C) budget of grasslands is highly dynamic, dependent on grazing history and on effects of interannual variability (IAV) in climate on carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes. Variability in climatic drivers may directly affect fluxes, but also may indirectly affect fluxes by altering the response of the biota to the environment, an effect termed ‘functional change’. We measured net ecosystem exchange of CO2 (NEE) and its diurnal components, daytime ecosystem CO2 exchange (PD) and night-time respiration (RE), on grazed and ungrazed mixed-grass prairie in North Dakota, USA, for five growing seasons. Our primary objective was to determine how climatic anomalies influence variability in CO2 exchange. We used regression analysis to distinguish direct effects of IAV in climate on fluxes from functional change. Functional change was quantified as the improvement in regression on fitting a model in which slopes of flux–climate relationships vary among years rather than remain invariant. Functional change and direct effects of climatic variation together explained about 20% of variance in weekly means of NEE, PD, and RE. Functional change accounted for more than twice the variance in fluxes of direct effects of climatic variability. Grazing did not consistently influence the contribution of functional change to flux variability, but altered which environmental variable best explained year-to-year differences in flux–climate slopes, reduced IAV in seasonal means of fluxes, lessened the strength of flux–climate correlations, and increased NEE by reducing RE relatively more than PD. Most of these trends are consistent with the interpretation that grazing reduced the influence of plants on ecosystem fluxes. Because relationships between weekly values of fluxes and climatic regulators changed annually, year-to-year differences in the C balance of these ecosystems cannot be predicted from knowledge of IAV in climate alone.
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