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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: GLOBAL CHANGE: RESPONSES AND MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES FOR SEMI-ARID RANGELANDS

Location: Rangeland Resources Research

Title: Spatial Versus Temporal Variation in Precipitation in a Semiarid Ecosystem

Author
item Augustine, David

Submitted to: Landscape Ecology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: October 1, 2010
Publication Date: June 11, 2010
Repository URL: http://parking.nal.usda.gov/shortterm/21067_LE_2010_spatial_precip_variability.pdf
Citation: Augustine, D.J. 2010. Spatial Versus Temporal Variation in Precipitation in a Semiarid Ecosystem. Landscape Ecology. 25:913-925.

Interpretive Summary: Semiarid ecosystems experience a high degree of variation in precipitation both in space and time, which influences plant growth patterns and the distribution of native fauna. Although variation in precipitation among months and years has been studied extensively, far less is known about variation in space. We used long-term precipitation records to examine spatial variation across the 63 km2 Central Plains Experimental Range in northeastern Colorado, and across the 117,000 km2 region of shortgrass steppe in eastern Colorado. Relative to temporal variation, spatial variation was low at scales < 10 km, increased linearly across scales of 40 – 120 km, and was nearly equal in magnitude to temporal variation across distances of 120 – 160 km. We also found that the magnitude and spatial pattern of variation was similar for precipitation received in June (a time when rainfall arrives primarily as local, convective thunderstorms) as compared to cumulative precipitation received during the full growing season. Patchiness in rainfall across all distances that we evaluated was similar for drought, dry, above-average and wet years. Across distances of 40 – 200 km, spatial variation within a single growing season was 6 – 9 times greater than spatial variation in long-term mean growing-season precipitation, indicating a substantial amount of spatial shifting in the locations of patches of high and low precipitation over multiple years. These findings suggest spatial variation at scales of 120 – 160 km may have been an important factor influencing migratory fauna of the shortgrass steppe, and have significant implications for livestock producers and future assessments of climate change.

Technical Abstract: Spatial and temporal variation in precipitation are central features of semiarid ecosystems, influencing patterns of plant productivity and the distribution of native fauna. Although temporal variation in precipitation has been studied extensively, far less is known about the spatial scale and pattern of precipitation variability in semiarid regions. We used long-term precipitation records to examine spatial variation across the 63 km2 Central Plains Experimental Range in northeastern Colorado, and across the 117,000 km2 region of shortgrass steppe in eastern Colorado. Relative to temporal variation, spatial variation was low at scales < 10 km, increased linearly across scales of 40 – 120 km, and was nearly equal in magnitude to temporal variation across distances of 120 – 160 km. Although we hypothesized that most spatial variation would be generated by early-summer convective thunderstorms in June, we found that the magnitude and spatial pattern of variation was similar for precipitation received in June compared to cumulative precipitation received during the full growing season. The degree of spatial autocorrelation in precipitation across all distances that we evaluated was similar for drought, dry, above-average and wet years. Across distances of 40 – 200 km, spatial variation within a single growing season was 6 – 9 times greater than spatial variation in long-term mean growing-season precipitation, indicating a substantial amount of spatial shifting in the locations of patches of high and low precipitation over multiple years. These findings suggest spatial variation at scales of 120 – 160 km may have been an important factor influencing migratory fauna of the shortgrass steppe, and have significant implications for livestock producers and future assessments of climate change.

Last Modified: 10/1/2014
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