Mid-latitude shrub steppe plant communities: Climate change consequences for soil water resources

By: , and 



In the coming century, climate change is projected to impact precipitation and temperature regimes worldwide, with especially large effects in drylands. We use big sagebrush ecosystems as a model dryland ecosystem to explore the impacts of altered climate on ecohydrology and the implications of those changes for big sagebrush plant communities using output from 10 Global Circulation Models (GCMs) for two representative concentration pathways (RCPs). We ask: 1) What is the magnitude of variability in future temperature and precipitation regimes among GCMs and RCPs for big sagebrush ecosystems and 2) How will altered climate and uncertainty in climate forecasts influence key aspects of big sagebrush water balance? We explored these questions across 1980-2010, 2030-2060, and 2070-2100 to determine how changes in water balance might develop through the 21st century. We assessed ecohydrological variables at 898 sagebrush sites across the western US using a process-based soil water model, SOILWAT to model all components of daily water balance using site-specific vegetation parameters and site-specific soil properties for multiple soil layers. Our modeling approach allowed for changes in vegetation based on climate. Temperature increased across all GCMs and RCPs, while changes in precipitation were more variable across GCMs. Winter and spring precipitation was predicted to increase in the future (7% by 2030-2060, 12% by 2070-2100), resulting in slight increases in soil water potential (SWP) in winter. Despite wetter winter soil conditions, SWP decreased in late spring and summer due to increased evapotranspiration (6% by 2030-2060, 10% by 2070-2100) and groundwater recharge (26% and 30% increase by 2030-2060 and 2070-2100). Thus, despite increased precipitation in the cold season, soils may dry out earlier in the year, resulting in potentially longer drier summer conditions. If winter precipitation cannot offset drier summer conditions in the future, we expect big sagebrush regeneration and survival will be negatively impacted, potentially resulting in shifts in the relative abundance of big sagebrush plant functional groups. Our results also highlight the importance of assessing multiple GCMs to understand the range of climate change outcomes on ecohydrology, which was contingent on the GCM chosen.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Mid-latitude shrub steppe plant communities: Climate change consequences for soil water resources
Series title Ecology
DOI 10.1002/ecy.1457
Volume 97
Issue 9
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 13 p.
First page 2342
Last page 2354
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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