Climate change and primary production: Forty years in a bunchgrass prairie

By Gary E. Belovsky and Jennifer B. Slade


Over the past 109 years, a Montana intermountain bunchgrass prairie annually became warmer (0.7°C) and drier (27%). The temperature and precipitation trends continued since 1978, as we studied nitrogen availability, annual aboveground primary production (ANPP), plant phenology and species composition. Given the annual increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation, ANPP might be expected to decline; however, it increased by 110%, as the period of greatest production (late-May–June) became wetter and cooler, counter to the annual pattern, and this was strongest at lower elevations. Grass production increased by 251%, while dicot production declined by 65%, which increased grass relative abundance by 54%. Summer temperatures increased 12.5% which increased plant senescence by 119% and decreased fall plant regrowth by 68%. More intense summer senescence changed plant species composition in favor of more drought tolerant species. The greater ANPP and summer senescence may increase susceptibility for fire, but fire tolerance of the plant species composition did not change. Invasive plant species increased 108% over the study with annual grasses accounting for >50% of this increase, which further increased summer plant senescence. Therefore, seasonal climate changes at a smaller geographical scale (local), rather than average annual climate changes over a larger geographical scale (regional), may better reflect plant community responses, and this makes ecological forecasting of climate change more difficult.

This article appeared on the PlosOne website at https://journals.plos.org/


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