Hydrological and ecological responses of ecosystems to extreme precipitation regimes: A test of empirical-based hypotheses with an ecosystem model

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Many uncertainties exist in our quest to understand and predict how terrestrial ecosystems will respond to climate change. A particularly challenging issue is how increases in extreme precipitation regimes, which are characterized by larger but fewer individual precipitation events, will impact ecosystems. Based on a wide-ranging review of empirical studies of both hydrological and ecological processes, Knapp et al. (2008) generated a suite of hypotheses positing how these processes would respond to an increase in extreme precipitation regimes and, from this, concluded that mesic ecosystems would be more detrimentally impacted than xeric ones. In this study we present the first thorough test of these hypotheses by examining how forest, shrubland, grassland and desert ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau, having very different vegetation and climate characteristics, respond to more extreme rainfall regimes. We accomplished this by using a simulation model (Biome-BGC) to examine the integrated behavior of these ecosystems based on the simultaneous responses and interactions of 10 hydrological and ecological processes: runoff, canopy evaporation, soil evaporation, soil water storage, transpiration, net primary productivity, soil respiration, net ecosystem exchange, nitrogen [N] mineralization, and N leaching. We ran forty-year simulations (1986–2008) where we manipulated mean growing season precipitation to create more extreme intra-annual precipitation regimes characterized by lower precipitation frequencies, longer dry periods, and larger individual (daily) precipitation events. When compared to ambient conditions, our simulations showed that increases in extreme rainfall regimes (1) impacted all hydrological processes in mesic ecosystems, resulting in a reduction of soil mineral N due to increased leaching; and (2) enhanced plant growth in xeric ecosystems, leading to larger and denser canopies and higher light interception. The responses of hydrological processes tended to follow Knapp et al.’s hypotheses more so than ecological responses. Overall, responses of mesic ecosystems closely followed the hypotheses but xeric ecosystems were highly variable and only weakly consistent with them. Our findings provide new insights as to how more extreme rainfall regimes may potentially affect the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems.





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Ye, JS, JF Reynolds, FT Maestre and FM Li (2016). Hydrological and ecological responses of ecosystems to extreme precipitation regimes: A test of empirical-based hypotheses with an ecosystem model. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 22. pp. 36–46. 10.1016/j.ppees.2016.08.001 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/24228.

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