Legacies of precipitation fluctuations on primary production: theory and data synthesis

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Nov 19;367(1606):3135-44. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0347.


Variability of above-ground net primary production (ANPP) of arid to sub-humid ecosystems displays a closer association with precipitation when considered across space (based on multiyear averages for different locations) than through time (based on year-to-year change at single locations). Here, we propose a theory of controls of ANPP based on four hypotheses about legacies of wet and dry years that explains space versus time differences in ANPP-precipitation relationships. We tested the hypotheses using 16 long-term series of ANPP. We found that legacies revealed by the association of current- versus previous-year conditions through the temporal series occur across all ecosystem types from deserts to mesic grasslands. Therefore, previous-year precipitation and ANPP control a significant fraction of current-year production. We developed unified models for the controls of ANPP through space and time. The relative importance of current-versus previous-year precipitation changes along a gradient of mean annual precipitation with the importance of current-year PPT decreasing, whereas the importance of previous-year PPT remains constant as mean annual precipitation increases. Finally, our results suggest that ANPP will respond to climate-change-driven alterations in water availability and, more importantly, that the magnitude of the response will increase with time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Cycle
  • Climate Change
  • Droughts
  • Ecosystem*
  • Geography
  • Models, Biological
  • Plant Leaves / chemistry
  • Plant Roots / chemistry
  • Poaceae / chemistry*
  • Statistics as Topic / methods*
  • Time Factors
  • Water / chemistry*


  • Water