JOURNAL ARTICLE

Productivity responses of desert vegetation to precipitation patterns across a rainfall gradient

Fang Li, Wenzhi Zhao, Hu Liu
Journal of Plant Research 2015, 128 (2): 283-94
25613044
The influences of previous-year precipitation and episodic rainfall events on dryland plants and communities are poorly quantified in the temperate desert region of Northwest China. To evaluate the thresholds and lags in the response of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) to variability in rainfall pulses and seasonal precipitation along the precipitation-productivity gradient in three desert ecosystems with different precipitation regimes, we collected precipitation data from 2000 to 2012 in Shandan (SD), Linze (LZ) and Jiuquan (JQ) in northwestern China. Further, we extracted the corresponding MODIS Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, a proxy for ANPP) datasets at 250 m spatial resolution. We then evaluated different desert ecosystems responses using statistical analysis, and a threshold-delay model (TDM). TDM is an integrative framework for analysis of plant growth, precipitation thresholds, and plant functional type strategies that capture the nonlinear nature of plant responses to rainfall pulses. Our results showed that: (1) the growing season NDVIINT (INT stands for time-integrated) was largely correlated with the warm season (spring/summer) at our mildly-arid desert ecosystem (SD). The arid ecosystem (LZ) exhibited a different response, and the growing season NDVIINT depended highly on the previous year's fall/winter precipitation and ANPP. At the extremely arid site (JQ), the variability of growing season NDVIINT was equally correlated with the cool- and warm-season precipitation; (2) some parameters of threshold-delay differed among the three sites: while the response of NDVI to rainfall pulses began at about 5 mm for all the sites, the maximum thresholds in SD, LZ, and JQ were about 55, 35 and 30 mm respectively, increasing with an increase in mean annual precipitation. By and large, more previous year's fall/winter precipitation, and large rainfall events, significantly enhanced the growth of desert vegetation, and desert ecosystems should be much more adaptive under likely future scenarios of increasing fall/winter precipitation and large rainfall events. These results highlight the inherent complexity in predicting how desert ecosystems will respond to future fluctuations in precipitation.

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