Asymmetric responses of primary productivity to precipitation extremes: A synthesis of grassland precipitation manipulation experiments

Kevin R. Wilcox, Zheng Shi, Laureano A. Gherardi, Nathan P. Lemoine, Sally E. Koerner, David L. Hoover, Edward Bork, Kerry M. Byrne, James Cahill, Scott L. Collins, Sarah Evans, Anna K. Gilgen, Petr Holub, Lifen Jiang, Alan K. Knapp, Daniel LeCain, Junyi Liang, Pablo Garcia-Palacios, Josep Peñuelas, William T. PockmanMelinda D. Smith, Shanghua Sun, Shannon R. White, Laura Yahdjian, Kai Zhu, Yiqi Luo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

229 Scopus citations


Climatic changes are altering Earth's hydrological cycle, resulting in altered precipitation amounts, increased interannual variability of precipitation, and more frequent extreme precipitation events. These trends will likely continue into the future, having substantial impacts on net primary productivity (NPP) and associated ecosystem services such as food production and carbon sequestration. Frequently, experimental manipulations of precipitation have linked altered precipitation regimes to changes in NPP. Yet, findings have been diverse and substantial uncertainty still surrounds generalities describing patterns of ecosystem sensitivity to altered precipitation. Additionally, we do not know whether previously observed correlations between NPP and precipitation remain accurate when precipitation changes become extreme. We synthesized results from 83 case studies of experimental precipitation manipulations in grasslands worldwide. We used meta-analytical techniques to search for generalities and asymmetries of aboveground NPP (ANPP) and belowground NPP (BNPP) responses to both the direction and magnitude of precipitation change. Sensitivity (i.e., productivity response standardized by the amount of precipitation change) of BNPP was similar under precipitation additions and reductions, but ANPP was more sensitive to precipitation additions than reductions; this was especially evident in drier ecosystems. Additionally, overall relationships between the magnitude of productivity responses and the magnitude of precipitation change were saturating in form. The saturating form of this relationship was likely driven by ANPP responses to very extreme precipitation increases, although there were limited studies imposing extreme precipitation change, and there was considerable variation among experiments. This highlights the importance of incorporating gradients of manipulations, ranging from extreme drought to extreme precipitation increases into future climate change experiments. Additionally, policy and land management decisions related to global change scenarios should consider how ANPP and BNPP responses may differ, and that ecosystem responses to extreme events might not be predicted from relationships found under moderate environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4376-4385
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • aboveground net primary productivity
  • belowground net primary productivity
  • biomass allocation
  • climate change
  • grasslands
  • meta-analysis
  • root biomass

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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