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Droughting a megadrought: Ecological consequences of a decade of experimental drought atop aridification on the Colorado Plateau

March 15, 2023

Global dryland vegetation communities will likely change as ongoing drought conditions shift regional climates towards a more arid future. Additional aridification of drylands can impact plant and ground cover, biogeochemical cycles, and plant-soil feedbacks, yet how and when these crucial ecosystem components will respond to drought intensification requires further investigation. Using a long-term precipitation reduction experiment (35% reduction) conducted across the Colorado Plateau and spanning ten years into a 20+ year regional megadrought, we explored how vegetation cover, soil conditions, and growing season nitrogen (N) availability are impacted by drying climate conditions. We observed large declines for all dominant plant functional types (C3 and C4 grasses and C3 and C4 shrubs) across measurement period, both in the drought treatment and control plots, likely due to ongoing regional megadrought conditions. In experimental drought plots, we observed less plant cover, less biological soil crust cover, warmer and drier soil conditions, and more soil resin-extractable N compared to the control plots. Observed increases in soil N availability were best explained by a negative correlation with plant cover regardless of treatment, suggesting that declines in vegetation N uptake may be driving increases in available soil N. However, in ecosystems experiencing long-term aridification, increased N availability may ultimately result in N losses if soil moisture is consistently too dry to support plant and microbial N immobilization and ecosystem recovery. These results show dramatic, worrisome declines in plant cover with long-term drought. Additionally, this study highlights that more plant cover losses are possible with further drought intensification, and underscore that, in addition to large drought effects on aboveground communities, drying trends drive significant changes to critical soil resources such as N availability, all of which could have long-term ecosystem impacts for drylands.

Publication Year 2023
Title Droughting a megadrought: Ecological consequences of a decade of experimental drought atop aridification on the Colorado Plateau
DOI 10.1111/gcb.16681
Authors Rebecca A Finger-Higgens, Tara Boyce Belnap Bishop, Jayne Belnap, Erika L. Geiger, Edmund E. Grote, David Hoover, Sasha C. Reed, Michael C. Duniway
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Change Biology
Index ID 70242077
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center