Scientists have found that U.S. midwest drought reduced prairie grass growth most in June. Credit: NSF Konza Prairie LTER Site
it matter whether long periods of hot weather, such as last year’s heat
wave that gripped the U.S. Midwest, happen in June or July, August or
Scientists studying the subtle effects of heat waves and droughts say that when such events happen makes a big difference.
on more than 25 years of data from the National Science Foundation
(NSF) Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in
Kansas—one of 26 such NSF LTER sites across the globe—ecologists looked
at how droughts and heat waves affect grass growth during different
months of the year.
The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published their results this week.
major challenge in studying climate change is separating the effects of
long-term trends from interannual variation,” says Saran Twombly,
program director for NSF’s LTER Network.
study identifies variation in the timing and magnitude of drought and
heat as keys to an ecosystem. The results highlight the importance of
long-term data to understanding the complex interactions that underlie
ecological responses to climate change.”
researchers found that droughts reduced grass growth most in early
June, while heat waves reduced grass growth only during late July.
Neither drought nor heat waves in August or September seemed to have an effect on grass growth.
projections need to incorporate predictions of not only how much
climate will change, but when during the year changes will happen,” says
Joseph Craine of Kansas State University, the paper’s lead author.
of the paper are Jesse Nippert, Adam Skibbe and Stacy Hutchinson of
Kansas State University; Andrew Elmore of the Appalachian Laboratory,
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; and Nathaniel
Brunsell of the University of Kansas.
the effects of climate change on grasslands depend on when they happen
may not be much of a surprise–little snow in winter may have less
effect than low rainfall in summer, for example,” Craine says.
The sensitivity of grasslands to the timing of drought and heat waves was a big surprise, however.
waves mattering only during late July was not something we expected,”
says Craine. “Everyone seemed to think that August heat waves and
drought would have major effects on grass productivity, but we couldn’t
The effects of drought and heat waves in fact declined over the summer season.
Other studies showed that drought and heat waves affect parts of ecosystems differently.
“For example, in some grass species, flowering is altered by drought in May, and in others by drought in August,” Craine says.
that graze the prairie don’t seem to respond to heat waves, but may
gain more weight in years with drier weather—provided that droughts come
in late June or early July rather than in August or later.
researchers are looking at long-term records from other LTER sites to
determine whether there’s a uniformity to the Konza findings.
these patterns are general across ecosystems,” the scientists write in
their paper, “predictions of ecosystem response to climate change will
have to account not only for the magnitude of climate variability but
also for its timing.”
For now, says Craine, “the results will change the types of questions we ask about climate and ecosystems.”