Regional Patterns in Carbon Cycling Across the Great Plains of North America
The large organic carbon (C) pools found in noncultivated grassland soils suggest that historically these ecosystems have had high rates of C sequestration. Changes in the soil C pool over time are a function of alterations in C input and output rates. Across the Great Plains and at individual sites through time, inputs of C (via aboveground production) are correlated with precipitation, however, regional trends in C outputs and the sensitivity of these C fluxes to annual variability in precipitation are less well known. To address the role of precipitation in controlling grassland C fluxes, and thereby soil C sequestration rates, we measured aboveground and belowground net primary production (ANPP-C and BNPP-C), soil respiration (SR-C), and litter decomposition rates for 2 years, a relatively dry year followed by a year of average precipitation, at five sites spanning a precipitation gradient in the Great Plains. ANPP-C, SR-C, and litter decomposition increased from shortgrass steppe (36, 454, and 24 g C m–2 y–1) to tallgrass prairie (180, 1221, and 208 g C m–2 y–1 for ANPP-C, SR-C, and litter decomposition, respectively). No significant regional trend in BNPP-C was found. Increasing precipitation between years increased rates of ANPP-C, BNPP-C, SR-C, and litter decomposition at most sites. However, regional patterns of the sensitivity of ANPP-C, BNPP-C, SR-C, and litter decomposition to between-year differences in precipitation varied. BNPP-C was more sensitive to between-year differences in precipitation than were the other C fluxes, and shortgrass steppe was more responsive than were mixed grass and tallgrass prairie.