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Biogeochemical and ecological feedbacks in grassland responses to warming


Plant growth often responds rapidly to experimentally simulated climate change1,2. Feedbacks can modulate the initial responses3, but these feedbacks are difficult to detect when they operate on long timescales4. We transplanted intact plant–soil mesocosms down an elevation gradient to expose them to a warmer climate and used collectors and interceptors to simulate changes in precipitation. Here, we show that warming initially increased aboveground net primary productivity in four grassland ecosystems, but the response diminished progressively over nine years. Warming altered the plant community, causing encroachment by species typical of warmer environments and loss of species from the native environment—trends associated with the declining response of plant productivity. Warming stimulated soil nitrogen turnover, which dampened but did not reverse the temporal decline in the productivity response. Warming also enhanced N losses, which may have weakened the expected biogeochemical feedback where warming stimulates N mineralization and plant growth1,5,6. Our results, describing the responses of four ecosystems to nearly a decade of simulated climate change, indicate that short-term experiments are insufficient to capture the temporal variability and trend of ecosystem responses to environmental change and their modulation through biogeochemical and ecological feedbacks.

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Figure 1: The relative responses of ANPP to climate change treatments from 2002 to 2010.
Figure 2: Variables explaining the response of ANPP to warming treatments over time.
Figure 3: Mechanisms accounting for progressive responses of ANPP to warming.


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The authors thank M. Allwright, D. Ross and N. Cobb for their assistance in the field, T. Ayers for plant identification, N. Umstattd, K-J. van Groenigen, R. Mau, J. Brown, R. Doucett, M. Caron and K. Wennig for their help in preparing and analysing plant and soil samples. We also thank B. Butterfield, S. Hart and D. Breshears for comments on data interpretation and earlier versions of the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB-0092642 and DEB-0949460) and Science Foundation Arizona (GRF 0001-07).

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B.A.H. conceived the study. Z.W. and P.D. collected the data. Z.W. and B.A.H. analysed the data and drafted the paper. P.D. and G.W.K. helped with result interpretation and writing.

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Correspondence to Bruce A. Hungate.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wu, Z., Dijkstra, P., Koch, G. et al. Biogeochemical and ecological feedbacks in grassland responses to warming. Nature Clim Change 2, 458–461 (2012).

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