Response of a mixed grass prairie to an extreme precipitation event: Introduced species, soil nitrogen and previous patterns influence responses
Although much research has been conducted to measure vegetation response to directional shifts in climate change drivers, we know less about how plant communities will respond to extreme precipitation events. Here, we evaluated the response of a grassland community to an unprecedented 43 cm rainfall event that occurred in the Front Range of Colorado in September, 2013 using vegetation plots that had been monitored for response to simulated precipitation changes since 2011. This rain caused soils to stay at or above field capacity for multiple days, and much of the seed bank germinated following the early autumn event.
Annual introduced grasses, especially cheatgrass, (Bromus tectorum), and several introduced forbs demonstrated strong positive increases in cover the following growing season. Native cool season grasses and native forbs showed limited changes in absolute cover despite continued high soil water availability, while native warm season grasses increased in cover the following summer. Treatments that previously altered the amounts and seasonality of rainfall during the 2011-2013 interval showed legacy effects impacting cover responses of introduced species and warm-season native grasses. Resin bag estimates of inorganic nitrogen flux resulting from the event indicated twice as much nitrogen movement compared to any previous collections during the 2011-2013 interval. Nitrogen additions to a subset of plots made in spring of 2014 demonstrated that the relative cover of introduced species could be further increased with additional soil nitrogen. Collectively, these results support the contention that extreme precipitation events can favor species already benefiting from other environmental change drivers.