Drought differentially diminishes ecosystem production

Sometimes, even the most carefully conceived experiment is thrown for a loop by Mother Nature.  Good scientists must embrace the unexpected.  Ellen Esch, David Lipson and Elsa Cleland set out to explore how plant communities responded to high, normal and low rainfall conditions.  The researchers set up rainfall manipulation plots that were covered with a clear plastic roof that would allow most light to pass through, but intercept all of the water.  They then reapplied the intercepted water, with each plot receiving either 50%, 100% or 150% of the fallen rain.  The plan was to simulate drought, normal and wet conditions. The natural world had other plans, however, as 2013-2016 were unusually dry years. Fortunately the researchers adjusted, by refocusing their question on how plant communities respond to severe drought  (50% of intercepted rainfall), moderate drought (100%) and normal rainfall (150%).


Herbaceous plant community being irrigated (notice the rainbow). Credit: Ellen Esch.

Esch and her colleagues set up their experiment at the San Diego State University Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, which has a Mediterranean-type climate with mild, somewhat moist winters and hot dry summers.


Exotic grasses (here showing recently senesced Bromus madritensis) dominated the herbaceous sites. Credit: Ellen Esch

They wanted to know how climatic variability brought about by climate change would influence plant phenology (the timing of periodic ecological events), specifically green-up date (when plants begin turning green) and senescence date (when they turn brown and curtail photosynthesis). They expected that the native species, primarily sage-type shrubs, would be more drought-resistant than the exotic herbaceous vegetation, which was dominated by brome grass.  Climate change is predicted to increase climatic variability, which should increase the frequency and intensity of severe droughts (and also of unusually wet years).

An important measure of ecosystem functioning is its productivity – the amount of carbon taken up by an ecosystem, usually by photosynthesis.  More productive ecosystems have more energy available to feed consumers and decomposers.  More productive ecosystems also take up and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can help reduce climate change. The researchers used a reflectance radiometer to calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which essentially calculates how green an area is, and is a good measure of productivity.  Esch and her colleagues hypothesized that drought would reduce overall ecosystem NDVI, but that native vegetation would be more buffered against the negative effects of drought than would the invasive exotic vegetation.


A student from a plant physiology class at San Diego State University measures NDVI. Credit: David Lipson

Each year from 2013 – 2016, the researchers set up 30 3X3 meter plots; 15 plots were dominated by exotic herbaceous species such as brome, and 15 plots had mostly native shrub species such as sage. Plots were treated the same, except for receiving either 50%, 100% or 150% of the fallen rain, which corresponded to severe drought, moderate drought and normal rainfall, respectively. Periodically, the researchers used a radiometer to measure NDVI for each plot.  They discovered that, as expected, drought reduced NDVI much more in the plots dominated by exotic herbaceous species (top graph below) than in the plots dominated by native shrubs (bottom graph).


NDVI on each measurement date for plots dominated by (top graph) exotic herbaceous species and (bottom graph) native shrub species. Red square = severe drought treatment, green circle = moderate drought, blue triangle = normal precipitation. Error bars = +/- 1 standard error.

What caused this difference in response to drought between exotic plant-dominated and native plant-dominated communities?  Mechanistically, the native shrubs have deeper roots than the exotic grasses, which may allow them to take up more water.  But how does this translate to differences in green-up date and senescence date?


A student measures stem elongation on a senescent native shrub, the black sage Salvia mellifera, near the very end of the growing season. Credit: Ellen Esch.

The researchers used two different NDVI measures to help answer this question.  Maximum NDVI is the greatest daily NDVI measure over the course of the growing season.  It is correlated with the maximum productivity of the plant community (at its greenest!).  In contrast seasonally integrated NDVI is a measure of productivity summed over the entire growing season.  Keeping those distinctions in mind, under extreme drought maximum NDVI was much lower in the exotic plots than the native plots.  But exotic plot performance increased with rainfall, so that under the wettest conditions (normal rainfall), exotic plot maximum NDVI was similar to native plot maximum NDVI (graph a below). However, when considered over the entire growing season, native plots were consistently more productive than exotic plots (graph c below).


Effect of rainfall on (a) maximum NDVI (top left), (c) seasonally integrated NDVI (top right), (b) green-up date (bottom left) and (d) senescence date (bottom right). Colors indicate dominant plot community composition (yellow = herbaceous, green = shrub) and point shape indicates growing season year (circle = 2013, square = 2014, diamond = 2015, triangle = 2016).

Phenology played an important role accounting for these differences in seasonally integrated NDVI.  At all rainfall levels, the native plant communities greened-up well before the exotic plant communities (graph b above). Exotic plants greened-up somewhat earlier as rainfall increased, while native plant green-up date was independent of rainfall. At all rainfall levels, native plots senesced about one month later than exotic plots, with increased rainfall delaying senescence in both native and exotic plant communities (graph d above).

Esch and her colleagues conclude that species composition (native shrub vs. exotic herbaceous plants) and drought both influence phenology and productivity in this important ecosystem. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of extreme droughts in this and other ecosystems.  Consequently, drought coupled with invasion by herbaceous species threatens to sharply reduce ecosystem productivity, which will decrease the food available for consumers and decomposers, and simultaneously reduce the amount of carbon dioxide taken up and stored by the ecosystem, thereby contributing to further climate change.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Esch, E. H.,  Lipson, D. A., and  Cleland, E. E.  2019.  Invasion and drought alter phenological sensitivity and synergistically lower ecosystem production. Ecology  100(10):e02802. 10.1002/ecy.2802. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

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