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Ecosystem resilience despite large-scale altered hydroclimatic conditions

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Climate change is predicted to increase both drought frequency and duration, and when coupled with substantial warming, will establish a new hydroclimatological model for many regions1. Large-scale, warm droughts have recently occurred in North America, Africa, Europe, Amazonia and Australia, resulting in major effects on terrestrial ecosystems, carbon balance and food security2,3. Here we compare the functional response of above-ground net primary production to contrasting hydroclimatic periods in the late twentieth century (1975–1998), and drier, warmer conditions in the early twenty-first century (2000–2009) in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. We find a common ecosystem water-use efficiency (WUEe: above-ground net primary production/evapotranspiration) across biomes ranging from grassland to forest that indicates an intrinsic system sensitivity to water availability across rainfall regimes, regardless of hydroclimatic conditions. We found higher WUEe in drier years that increased significantly with drought to a maximum WUEe across all biomes; and a minimum native state in wetter years that was common across hydroclimatic periods. This indicates biome-scale resilience to the interannual variability associated with the early twenty-first century drought—that is, the capacity to tolerate low, annual precipitation and to respond to subsequent periods of favourable water balance. These findings provide a conceptual model of ecosystem properties at the decadal scale applicable to the widespread altered hydroclimatic conditions that are predicted for later this century. Understanding the hydroclimatic threshold that will break down ecosystem resilience and alter maximum WUEe may allow us to predict land-surface consequences as large regions become more arid, starting with water-limited, low-productivity grasslands.

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Figure 1: Relationship between ANPP and iEVI.
Figure 2: Cross-biome sensitivity to precipitation during altered hydroclimatic conditions.
Figure 3: Ecosystem resilience across biomes and hydroclimatic conditions.
Figure 4: A conceptual model of ecosystem resilience during altered hydroclimatic condition.

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  • 22 May 2013

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The work was supported in part by the NASA SMAP Science Definition Team under agreement 08-SMAPSDT08-0042, the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discover Project (DP1115479) and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) EIF: AusCover. We thank the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for providing the precipitation data. We also thank J. Overpeck, T. McVicar, R. Donohue and M. Walbridge for their input.

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G.E.P.C., M.S.M. and A.H. conceived the study, assembled the data and produced the preliminary results. The remaining authors collected and analysed data, and contributed to the interpretation of results. All authors contributed to writing the paper. Statistical analyses were performed by G.E.P.C.

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Correspondence to Guillermo E. Ponce-Campos or M. Susan Moran.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ponce-Campos, G., Moran, M., Huete, A. et al. Ecosystem resilience despite large-scale altered hydroclimatic conditions. Nature 494, 349–352 (2013).

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