Consequences of Cool-Season Drought-Induced Plant Mortality to Chihuahuan Desert Grassland Ecosystem and Soil Respiration Dynamics

Erik P. Hamerlynck, Russell L. Scott, Greg A. Barron-Gafford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Predicted reductions of cool-season rainfall may expand and accelerate drought-induced plant mortality currently unfolding across the Southwest US. To assess how repeated plant mortality affects ecosystem functional attributes, we quantified net ecosystem CO2 exchange (NEE), ecosystem respiration (R eco), and gross ecosystem photosynthesis (GEP) responses to precipitation (P) at a semidesert grassland over spring (Feb 1-Apr 30) and summer (June 15-Oct 1) plant-active periods across eight years, including two with distinct patterns of extensive species-specific mortality. In addition, we quantified daily soil respiration (R soil) in high- (56-88%) and low-mortality (8-27%) plots the summer following the most recent mortality event. Plant mortality coincided with severely dry cool-season conditions (Dec 1-Apr 30). We found a positive relationship between springtime P and GEP, and that springtime conditions influenced GEP response to summer rainfall. High springtime R eco/GEP ratios followed plant mortality, suggesting increased available carbon after mortality was rapidly decomposed. R soil in low-mortality plots exceeded high-mortality plots over drier summer periods, likely from more root respiration. However, total cumulative R soil did not differ between plots, as variation in surviving plant conditions resulted in high and low C-yielding plots within both plot types. Vegetation status in high C-yielding R soil plots was similar to that across the grassland, suggesting R soil from such areas underlay higher R eco. This, coupled to springtime drought constraints to GEP, resulted in positive NEE under summer P accumulations that previously supported C-sink activity. These findings indicate that predicted lower cool-season precipitation may strongly and negatively affect summer season productivity in these semiarid grasslands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1178-1191
Number of pages14
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • climate change
  • ecosystem respiration
  • gross ecosystem photosynthesis
  • net ecosystem carbon dioxide exchange
  • seasonal precipitation
  • soil moisture
  • southern oscillation/El Niño

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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