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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Effect of rainfall patterns on soil surface CO2 efflux, soil moisture, soil temperature and plant growth in a grassland ecosystem of northern Ontario, Canada: implications for climate change

Michael F Laporte, LC Duchesne* and S Wetzel

Author Affiliations

Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Great Lakes Forestry Centre, 1219 Queen St. East, Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, P6A 2E5, Canada

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BMC Ecology 2002, 2:10  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-2-10

Published: 21 November 2002



The effect of rainfall patterns on soil surface CO2 efflux, soil moisture, soil temperature and plant growth was investigated in a grassland ecosystem of northern Ontario, Canada, where climatic change is predicted to introduce new precipitation regimes. Rain shelters were established in a fallow field consisting mainly of Trifolium hybridum L., Trifolium pratense L., and Phleum pratense L. Daytime ambient air temperatures within the shelters increased by an average of 1.9°C similar to predicted future increases in air temperatures for this region. To simulate six precipitation regimes which cover the maximum range to be expected under climate change, a portable irrigation system was designed to modify the frequency of monthly rainfall events with a constant delivery rate of water, while maintaining contemporary average precipitation volumes. Controls consisted of blocks irrigated with frequencies and total monthly precipitation consistent with the 25 year average rainfall for this location.


Seasonal soil moisture correlated with soil surface CO2 efflux (R = 0.756, P < 0.001) and above ground plant biomass (R = 0.447, P = 0.029). By reducing irrigation frequency, soil surface CO2 efflux decreased by 80%, P < 0.001, while soil moisture content decreased by 42%, P < 0.001.


Manipulating the number of precipitation events and inter-rainfall intervals, while maintaining monthly rainfall averages impacted CO2 efflux and plant growth. Even with monthly rainfall averages that are similar to contemporary monthly precipitation averages, decreasing the number of monthly rainfall events reduced soil surface CO2 efflux and plant growth through soil moisture deficits. Although many have speculated that climate change will increase ecosystem productivity, our results show that a reduction in the number of monthly rainfall events while maintaining monthly averages will limit carbon dynamics.