Articles | Volume 11, issue 11
Reviews and syntheses
13 Jun 2014
Reviews and syntheses |  | 13 Jun 2014

Impacts of extreme precipitation and seasonal changes in precipitation on plants

M. J. B. Zeppel, J. V. Wilks, and J. D. Lewis

Abstract. The global hydrological cycle is predicted to become more intense in future climates, with both larger precipitation events and longer times between events in some regions. Redistribution of precipitation may occur both within and across seasons, and the resulting wide fluctuations in soil water content (SWC) may dramatically affect plants. Though these responses remain poorly understood, recent research in this emerging field suggests the effects of redistributed precipitation may differ from predictions based on previous drought studies. We review available studies on both extreme precipitation (redistribution within seasons) and seasonal changes in precipitation (redistribution across seasons) on grasslands and forests.

Extreme precipitation differentially affected above-ground net primary productivity (ANPP), depending on whether extreme precipitation led to increased or decreased SWC, which differed based on the current precipitation and aridity index of the site. Specifically, studies to date reported that extreme precipitation decreased ANPP in mesic sites, but, conversely, increased ANPP in xeric sites, suggesting that plant-available water is a key factor driving responses to extreme precipitation. Similarly, the effects of seasonal changes in precipitation on ANPP, phenology, and leaf and fruit development varied with the effect on SWC. Reductions in spring or summer generally had negative effects on plants, associated with reduced SWC, while subsequent reductions in autumn or winter had little effect on SWC or plants. Similarly, increased summer precipitation had a more dramatic impact on plants than winter increases in precipitation.

The patterns of response suggest xeric biomes may respond positively to extreme precipitation, while comparatively mesic biomes may be more likely to be negatively affected. Moreover, seasonal changes in precipitation during warm or dry seasons may have larger effects than changes during cool or wet seasons. Accordingly, responses to redistributed precipitation will involve a complex interplay between plant-available water, plant functional type and resultant influences on plant phenology, growth and water relations. These results highlight the need for experiments across a range of soil types and plant functional types, critical for predicting future vegetation responses to future climates.

Final-revised paper