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Precipitation is predicted to become more variable in the western United States, meaning years of above and below average precipitation will become more common. Periods of extreme precipitation are major drivers of interannual variability in ecosystem functioning in water limited communities, but how ecosystems respond to these extremes over the long-term may shift with precipitation means and variances. Long-term changes in ecosystem functional response could reflect compensatory changes in species composition or species reaching physiological thresholds at extreme precipitation levels.


We conducted a five year precipitation manipulation experiment in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem in Idaho, United States. We used drought and irrigation treatments (approximately 50% decrease/increase) to investigate whether ecosystem functional response remains consistent under sustained high or low precipitation. We recorded data on aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP), species abundance, and soil moisture. We fit a generalized linear mixed effects model to determine if the relationship between ANPP and soil moisture differed among treatments. We used nonmetric multidimensional scaling to quantify community composition over the five years.


Ecosystem functional response, defined as the relationship between soil moisture and ANPP, was similar among irrigation and control treatments, but the drought treatment had a greater slope than the control treatment. However, all estimates for the effect of soil moisture on ANPP overlapped zero, indicating the relationship is weak and uncertain regardless of treatment. There was also large spatial variation in ANPP within-years, which contributes to the uncertainty of the soil moisture effect. Plant community composition was remarkably stable over the course of the experiment and did not differ among treatments.


Despite some evidence that ecosystem functional response became more sensitive under sustained drought conditions, the response of ANPP to soil moisture was consistently weak and community composition was stable. The similarity of ecosystem functional responses across treatments was not related to compensatory shifts at the plant community level, but instead may reflect the insensitivity of the dominant species to soil moisture. These species may be successful precisely because they have evolved life history strategies that buffer them against precipitation variability.