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Keywords:

  • biodiversity;
  • Boston-Area Climate Experiment;
  • C4 grasses;
  • climate change;
  • drought;
  • old-field community;
  • precipitation;
  • primary production;
  • root production;
  • warming experiment

Abstract

As Earth's atmosphere accumulates carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, Earth's climate is expected to warm and precipitation patterns will likely change. The manner in which terrestrial ecosystems respond to climatic changes will in turn affect the rate of climate change. Here we describe responses of an old-field herbaceous community to a factorial combination of four levels of warming (up to 4 °C) and three precipitation regimes (drought, ambient and rain addition) over 2 years. Warming suppressed total production, shoot production, and species richness, but only in the drought treatment. Root production did not respond to warming, but drought stimulated the growth of deeper (> 10 cm) roots by 121% in 1 year. Warming and precipitation treatments both affected functional group composition, with C4 grasses and other annual and biennial species entering the C3 perennial-dominated community in ambient rainfall and rain addition treatments as well as in warmed treatments. Our results suggest that, in this mesic system, expected changes in temperature or large changes in precipitation alone can alter functional composition, but they have little effect on total herbaceous plant growth. However, drought limits the capacity of the entire system to withstand warming. The relative insensitivity of our study system to climate suggests that the herbaceous component of old-field communities will not dramatically increase production in response to warming or precipitation change, and so it is unlikely to provide either substantial increases in forage production or a meaningful negative feedback to climate change later this century.