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Keywords:

  • aboveground biomass;
  • biofuel;
  • climate change;
  • flowering phenology;
  • gas exchange;
  • grassland;
  • tallgrass prairie

Abstract

In the central Great Plains of North America, climate change predictions include increases in mean annual temperature of 1.5–5.5 °C by 2100. Ecosystem responses to increased temperatures are likely to be regulated by dominant plant species, such as the potential biofuel species Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) in the tallgrass prairie. To describe the potential physiological and whole-plant responses of this species to future changes in air temperatures, we used louvered open-sided chambers (louvered OSC; 1 × 1 m, adjustable height) to passively alter canopy temperature in native stands of P. virgatum growing in tallgrass prairie at varying topographic positions (upland/lowland). The altered temperature treatment decreased daily mean temperatures by 1 °C and maximum temperatures by 4 °C in May and June, lowered daytime stomatal conductance and transpiration, decreased tiller density, increased specific leaf area, and delayed flowering. Among topographic contrasts, aboveground biomass, flowering tiller density, and tiller weight were greater in lowland sites compared to upland sites, with no temperature treatment interactions. Differences in biomass production responded more to topography than the altered temperature treatment, as soil water status varied considerably between topographic positions. These results indicate that while water availability as a function of topography was a strong driver of plant biomass, many leaf-level physiological processes were responsive to the small decreases in daily mean and maximum temperature, irrespective of landscape position. The varying responses of leaf-level gas exchange and whole-plant growth of P. virgatum in native stands to altered air temperature or topographic position illustrate that accurately forecasting yields for P. virgatum in mixed communities will require greater integration of physiological responses to simulated climate change (increased temperature) and resource availability over natural environmental gradients (soil moisture).