Precipitation temporal repackaging into fewer, larger storms delayed seasonal timing of peak photosynthesis in a semi-arid grassland

Fangyue Zhang, Joel A. Biederman, Nathan A. Pierce, Daniel L. Potts, Charles John Devine, Yanbin Hao, William K. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Against a backdrop of rising temperature, large portions of the western United States are experiencing fewer, larger and less frequent precipitation events. How such temporal ‘repackaging’ of precipitation alters the magnitude and timing of seasonal maximum gross primary productivity (GPPmax) remains unknown. Addressing this knowledge gap is critical, since changes to GPPmax magnitude and timing can impact a range of ecosystem services and management decisions. Here we used a field-based precipitation manipulation experiment in a semi-arid mixed annual/perennial bunchgrass ecosystem with mean annual precipitation ~384 mm to investigate how temporal repackaging of a fixed total seasonal precipitation amount impacts seasonal GPPmax and its timing. We found that temporal repackaging of precipitation profoundly influenced the seasonal timing of GPPmax. Many/small precipitation events advanced the seasonal timing of GPPmax by ~13 days in comparison with climatic normal precipitation. Conversely, few/large events led to deeper soil water infiltration, which delayed the timing of GPPmax by up to 16 days in comparison with climatic normal precipitation, and altered end-of-season community composition by increasing the diversity of shallow-rooted annual plants. While GPPmax magnitude did not differ across precipitation treatments, it was positively correlated with the abundance and biomass of deeper-rooted perennial bunchgrasses. The sensitivity of plant growth, biomass accumulation and plant life histories to the timing and magnitude of precipitation events and the resulting temporal patterns of soil moisture regulated ecosystem responses to altered precipitation patterns. Our results highlight the sensitivity of semi-arid grassland ecosystem to the temporal repackaging of precipitation. We find that already-observed and model-forecasted shifts toward few/large precipitation events could drive significant delays in the timing of peak productivity for this ecosystem. Adaptive land management frameworks should consider these findings since shifts in peak ecosystem productivity would have major implications for multiple land user communities. Additional research is needed to better understand the role of climate, community composition and soil properties in mediating variability in the seasonal timing of maximum ecosystem productivity. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)646-658
Number of pages13
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022


  • community composition
  • maximum photosynthetic production
  • precipitation repackaging
  • semi-arid grasslands
  • vegetation greenness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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