Climate extremes, such as drought, are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the ecological consequences of these extreme events can be substantial and widespread. Although there is still much to be learned about how ecosystems will respond to an intensification of drought, even less is known about the factors that determine post-drought recovery of ecosystem function. Such knowledge is particularly important because post-drought recovery periods can be protracted depending on the extent to which key plant populations, community structure and biogeochemical processes are affected. These drought legacies may alter ecosystem function for many years post-drought and may impact future sensitivity to climate extremes. With forecasts of more frequent and intense drought, this begs the question: will post-drought legacies affect ecosystem sensitivity to future drought events? To address this question, we experimentally imposed two extreme growing season droughts, each two years in duration followed by a two-year recovery period, in a central US grassland.
We found that this grassland was not resistant to the first extreme drought due to reduced productivity and differential sensitivity of the co-dominant C4 grass (Andropogon gerardii) and C3 forb (Solidago canadensis) species. This differential sensitivity led to a reordering of species abundances within the plant community. Yet, despite this large shift in plant community composition, which persisted two years post-drought, the grassland was highly resilient post-drought, due to increased abundance of the dominant C4 grass. Because of this shift to increased C4 grass dominance, we expected that previously-droughted grassland would be more resistant to a second extreme drought. However, contrary to these expectations, previously droughted grassland was more sensitive to drought than grassland that had not experienced drought. Furthermore, previously droughted grassland did not fully recover after the second drought. Thus, the legacy of drought – a shift in plant community composition – enhanced ecosystem sensitivity to a future extreme drought event.