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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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  • 22 May 2013

    The required hyphen has been added to the surname of author Guillermo Ponce-Campos in the HTML.


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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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  1. USDA ARS Southwest Watershed Research, Tucson, Arizona 85719, USA

    • Guillermo E. Ponce-Campos
    • , M. Susan Moran
    •  & Yongguang Zhang
  2. Soil, Water & Environmental Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Guillermo E. Ponce-Campos
    •  & Cynthia Bresloff
  3. Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster, University of Technology Sydney, New South Wales 2007, Australia

    • Alfredo Huete
    •  & Derek Eamus
  4. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, California, USA and Center for Environmental Biology, University of California, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Travis E. Huxman
  5. USDA ARS Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory, Tifton, Georgia 31793, USA

    • David D. Bosch
  6. USDA ARS Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Anthony R. Buda
  7. USDA ARS Southern Plains Range Research Station, Woodward, Oklahoma 73801, USA

    • Stacey A. Gunter
  8. USDA FS International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Rio Piedras 00926, Puerto Rico

    • Tamara Heartsill Scalley
  9. USDA FS Rocky Mountain Research Station Shrub Sciences Laboratory, Provo, Utah 84606, USA

    • Stanley G. Kitchen
  10. School of Natural Resources & the Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Mitchel P. McClaran
  11. USDA FS Southern Research Station, Asheville, North Carolina 28806, USA

    • W. Henry McNab
  12. USDA FS Pacific Southwest Research Station, Arcata, California 95521, USA

    • Diane S. Montoya
  13. USDA ARS Rangeland Resources Research Unit, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526, USA

    • Jack A. Morgan
  14. USDA ARS Jornada Experimental Range & Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research Program, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88012, USA

    • Debra P. C. Peters
  15. USDA ARS Cropping Systems & Water Quality Research Unit, Columbia, Missouri 65211, USA

    • E. John Sadler
  16. USDA ARS Northwest Watershed Research Center, Boise, Idaho 83712, USA

    • Mark S. Seyfried
  17. USDA ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory, El Reno, Oklahoma 73036, USA

    • Patrick J. Starks


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

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

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