U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Sensitivity of Grassland Productivity to Aridity
Published: March 06, 2017
Posted: September 05, 2017

Scientists, including a DOE Early Career awardee, show that grassland productivity is more sensitive to changes in vapor pressure deficit than to changes in precipitation.

The Science  
The terrestrial water and carbon cycles are coupled through plant regulation of stomatal closure. Stomata are the tiny openings on plant leaves through which air enters the plant. Both soil moisture and vapor pressure deficit—the amount of moisture in the air relative to its potential maximum—can govern stomatal closure, which reduces plant carbon uptake and therefore photosynthesis and productivity. However, plants vary in the degree to which they regulate their stomata — and in association the conductance of water through the plant — in response to increasing aridity: isohydric plants exert tight regulation of stomata and the water content of the plant, whereas anisohydric plants do not. In this study, a team of researchers, including a DOE Early Career scientist, use satellite remote-sensing data sets to examine how productivity in U.S. grasslands varies with changes in vapor pressure deficit (the amount of moisture in the air relative to its potential maximum) and precipitation.

The Impact
The results show that productivity in United States grasslands is far more sensitive to variations in vapor pressure deficit than to variations in precipitation. Anisohydric ecosystem productivity is over three times more sensitive to vapor pressure deficit than isohydric ecosystem productivity. Anisohydric grasslands are also more sensitive to precipitation than isohydric ones, but these sensitivities are generally weaker. The researchers conclude that increases in vapor pressure deficit (increased dryness of the air) rather than changes in precipitation will be a dominant influence on future grassland productivity. Current Earth system models (ESMs) do not explicitly represent many plant hydraulic processes, including the variations in water conductivity and resistance in plant tissue that affect isohydricity. Nevertheless, models with an explicit representation of plant water transport are becoming more common and could be incorporated into the next generation of large-scale ESMs. Arguably a greater challenge is the incorporation of variation in anisohydricity by plant type in ESMs. This study suggests that expanding new approaches to stomatal closure and hydraulic traits would improve the ability of ESMs to predict ecosystem drought responses.

Plants open and close stomata to balance carbon dioxide uptake and water losses, while avoiding desiccation of xylem (plant tissue that conducts water through the plant). Water limitations can reduce photosynthesis rates and therefore growth. However, species differ in their degree of stomatal closure at a given level of aridity. Recent evidence has shown coordination between stomatal closure strategies and the loss of xylem conductance under drought. The two coordinated behaviors can be summarized by the concept of anisohydricity—defined as the slope of leaf water potential variations relative to soil water potential. Understanding the effects of large-scale variability in ecosystem-scale anisohydricity is crucial, as it may affect the severity of droughts and heatwaves through land-atmosphere interactions, the carbon uptake of terrestrial ecosystems, and plant mortality patterns.

However, anisohydricity and related plant traits have traditionally been determined from in situ measurements, and scaling such measurements to entire ecosystems is challenged by the coexistence of multiple species with a wide variety of drought response traits. Novel remote-sensing-based techniques can now detect the integrated drought response of ecosystems and produce estimates of anisohydrocity. In this study, scientists use remote-sensing-based estimates of ecosystem-scale anisohydricity to show that the sensitivity of US grassland vegetation growth, as assessed by average summertime normalized difference vegetation index, is controlled by the degree of anisohydricity. Anisohydric grasslands are three times more sensitive to vapor pressure deficit than isohydric grasslands. Anisohydric grasslands are also more sensitive to precipitation than isohydric ones, but these sensitivities are generally weaker.

Contacts (BER PM)
Sally McFarlane
ARM Program Manager

 (PI Contact)
Pierre Gentine
Columbia University

A.P.W. was funded by Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Life. P.G. was supported by a DOE Early Career Award and an NSF CAREER grant.

Konings AG, AP Williams, and P Gentine. 2017. "Sensitivity of Grassland Productivity to Aridity Controlled by Stomatal and Xylem Regulation." Nature Geoscience 10(4):284-288. [DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2903] (Reference link)

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Cross-Cutting: Early Career
  • Facility: DOE ARM User Facility

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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