The effect of the foresummer drought on carbon exchange in subalpine meadows
Climate in subalpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains can be characterized by an early (foresummer) drought that occurs after snowmelt (May) and lasts until the start of the summer monsoon season (July). Climate change models predict an increase in the length and severity of this dry period due to earlier snowmelt dates, rising air temperatures, and shifts in the start and/or intensity of the North American monsoon. However, it is unknown how changes in the severity of this early season dry period will affect ecosystem carbon exchange. To address the importance of early season drought we combined a watering manipulation with eleven years of ecosystem carbon exchange data across an elevational gradient at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, Colorado.
Long-term trends reveal that earlier snowmelt dates lead to a decrease in net ecosystem productivity (NEP), in part because of the positive effect on early growing season drought conditions. Manipulating the strength of the foresummer drought by watering revealed that the timing of growing season precipitation is more important than the total amount for determining cumulative NEP. The strength of the foresummer drought did not significantly impact ecosystem respiration rates, but plants that experienced a strong foresummer drought measured critical water potential levels, which inhibited NEP even during the rainy season. Our results highlight the role of the foresummer drought in determining rates of carbon exchange throughout the growing season, and the potential for an increasingly negative balance of carbon in subalpine meadows under future climate change.