• Discrete climate events such as heat waves and droughts can have a disproportionate impact on ecosystems relative to the temporal scale over which they occur. Research oriented towards (extreme) events rather than (gradual) trends is therefore urgently needed. • Here, we imposed heat waves and droughts (50-yr return time) in a full factorial design on experimental plant communities in spring, summer or autumn. Droughts were created by removing the controlled water table (rainout shelters prevented precipitation), while heat waves were imposed with infrared heaters. • Measurements of whole-system CO(2) exchange, growth and biomass production revealed multiple interactions between treatments and the season in which they occurred. Heat waves had only small and transient effects, with infrared imaging showing little heat stress because of transpirational cooling. If heat waves were combined with drought, negative effects observed in single factor drought treatments were exacerbated through intensified soil drying, and heat stress in summer. Plant recovery from stress differed, affecting the biomass yield. • In conclusion, the timing of extreme events is critical regarding their impact, and synergisms between heat waves and drought aggravate the negative effects of these extremes on plant growth and functioning.
© 2010 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2010 New Phytologist Trust.