Humans are creating significant global environmental change, including shifts in climate, increased nitrogen (N) deposition, and the facilitation of species invasions. A multi-factorial field experiment is being performed in an arid grassland within the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to simulate increased nighttime temperature, higher N deposition, and heightened El Niño frequency (which increases winter precipitation by an average of 50%). The purpose of the experiment is to better understand the potential effects of environmental change on grassland community composition and the growth of introduced creosote seeds and seedlings. The focus is on the response of three dominant species, all of which are near their range margins and thus may be particularly susceptible to environmental change.
It is hypothesized that warmer summer temperatures and increased evaporation will favor growth of black grama (Bouteloua eriopoda), a desert grass, but that increased winter precipitation and/or available nitrogen will favor the growth of blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), a shortgrass prairie species. Treatment effects on limiting resources (soil moisture, nitrogen mineralization, precipitation), species growth (photosynthetic rates, creosote shoot elongation), species abundance, and net primary production (NPP) are all being measured to determine the interactive effects of key global change drivers on arid grassland plant community dynamics.
Our experimental design consists of three fully crossed factors (warming, increased winter precipitation, and N addition) in a completely randomized design, for a total of eight treatment combinations, with five replicates of each treatment combination, for a total of 40 plots. Each plot is 3 x 3.5 m. All plots contain B. eriopoda, B. gracilis and G. sarothrae. Our nighttime warming treatment is imposed using lightweight aluminum fabric shelters (mounted on rollers similar to a window shade) that are drawn across the warming plots each night to trap outgoing longwave radiation. The dataloggers controlling shelter movements are programmed to retract the shelters on nights when wind speeds exceed a threshold value (to prevent damage to shelters) and when rain is detected by a rain gauge or snow is detected by a leaf wetness sensor (to prevent an unintended rainout effect).
Each winter we impose an El Nino-like rainfall regime (50% increase over long-term average for non-El Nino years) using an irrigation system and RO water. El Nino rains are added in 6 experimental storm events that mimic actual El Nino winter-storm event size and frequency. During El Nino years we use ambient rainfall and do not impose experimental rainfall events. For N deposition, we add 2.0 g m-2 y-1 of N in the form of NH4NO3 because NH4 and NO3 contribute approximately equally to N deposition at SNWR (57% NH4 and 43% NO3; Bez et al., 2007). The NH4NO3 is dissolved in 12 liters of deionized water, equivalent to a 1 mm rainfall event, and applied with a backpack sprayer prior to the summer monsoon. Control plots receive the same amount of deionized water.