- Beyond productivity- Effects of extreme weather events on ecosystem processes and biotic interactions (2012)
- Under global climate change, extreme weather events, such as heat waves, drought or heavy rain spells, are projected to increase in magnitude and frequency. As these may affect vegetation and ecosystems more than gradual shifts in mean climatic parameters, investigating the consequences of extreme weather events recently became an important issue in climate change research. The main focus of most experiments investigating effects of extreme weather events on vegetation is on primary productivity. In our experiment in artificially planted communities, even an extreme drought of 1000-year recurrence did not have effects on above- or below-ground biomass production from 2005-2010. Thus, the main objectives of this thesis were (1) to investigate if extreme weather events have an effect on ecosystem functions beyond productivity, (2) to test if such a high resistance or resilience in response to drought regarding productivity also exists in more naturally grown plant communities and (3) to further elucidate possible mechanisms of the surprisingly large stability of the plant communities. To investigate these objectives, several experimental studies were conducted in artificially planted, as well as in naturally grown grassland communities and consequences of extreme weather events for ecosystem processes, such as decomposition and herbivory were investigated. In a pot experiment, it was studied, if grass plants react improved towards repeated drought when compared to a first drought and thus reveal a kind of drought memory. Such a memory might be one possible, but up until now widely neglected mechanism of resilience. Even though biomass production remained stable in our experiment in artificially planted communities, biomass quality was severely affected by extreme drought, thereby strongly affecting the development of a herbivore caterpillar feeding on drought-exposed leaves. Further, plant compounds of the host plant depended on the composition of the plant community it was grown in. This in turn resulted in strong effects on the larval mortality of herbivores feeding on such plants. In contrast to the study in artificially planted communities, aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) was reduced in naturally composed grassland in response to extreme rainfall variability, including an extreme drought followed by heavy rainfall. Forage quality was altered by drought. Furthermore, mowing frequency strongly altered forage quality and biomass production, but did not interact with rainfall variability and thus did neither buffer, nor amplify effects of extreme rainfall variability. Despite effects of rainfall variability on ANPP, grassland showed high resilience after drought followed by heavy rain, as effects were large shortly after the extreme event, but did not persist until a second harvest later in the year. In natural grassland, rainfall variability and drought also affected ecosystem processes, here litter decomposition, beyond productivity. Drought followed by heavy rain pulses decreased decomposition rates. Decomposition in more frequently mown meadows was more vulnerable towards drought exposure. Winter warming and additional winter rain had no long-term effect on decomposition. To conclude, projected increases in drought frequency under climate change may inhibit decomposition and alter nutrient and carbon cycling along with soil quality in temperate grassland, whereas a reduction of snow cover leading to more variable soil surface temperatures may counteract increased decomposition under winter warming. In this thesis, an ecological stress memory as one possible mechanism of resilience is defined as any response of a single plant after a stress experience that improves the reaction of the plant towards future stress experience and which is assessed on a whole plant level. This thesis further provides evidence of a drought memory in grass plants: Plants repeatedly subjected to drought showed improved photo-protection and a higher rate of living biomass when compared to plants faced with their first drought. Similarly, tree seedlings exposed to drought in summer revealed higher frost resistance during winter, providing evidence of a long-lasting “cross-stress-memory” . To sum up, the thesis shows that extreme weather events, even though neither severely affecting biomass production in artificially composed, nor in naturally growing communities in the long-term, exert strong influence on physiological or biogeochemical parameters, such as plant compounds or soil biotic activity. These changes in turn modify ecosystem functions beyond productivity, for example herbivory or decomposition, possibly altering biotic interactions and nutrient cycling. Furthermore, the findings imply that plants exhibit a stress memory after stress exposure, which may be one mechanisms leading to a high stability and resilience upon frequent stress.