In many terrestrial ecosystems, variation in aboveground net primary production (ANPP) is positively correlated with variation in interannual precipitation. Global climate change will alter both the mean and the variance of annual precipitation, but the relative impact of these changes in precipitation on mean ANPP remains uncertain. At any given site, the slope of the precipitation-ANPP relationship determines the sensitivity of mean ANPP to changes in mean precipitation, whereas the curvature of the precipitation-ANPP relationship determines the sensitivity of ANPP to changes in precipitation variability. We used 58 existing long-term data sets to characterize precipitation-ANPP relationships in terrestrial ecosystems and to quantify the sensitivity of mean ANPP to the mean and variance of annual precipitation. We found that most study sites have a nonlinear, saturating relationship between precipitation and ANPP, but these nonlinearities were not strong. As a result of these weak nonlinearities, ANPP was nearly 40 times more sensitive to precipitation mean than variance. A 1% increase in mean precipitation caused a −0.2% to 1.8% change in mean ANPP, with a 0.64% increase on average. Sensitivities to precipitation mean peaked at sites with a mean annual precipitation near 500 mm. Changes in species composition and increased intra-annual precipitation variability could lead to larger ANPP responses to altered precipitation regimes than predicted by our analysis.
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