Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Peter D. Blanken

Second Advisor

Dean E. Anderson

Third Advisor

Lisa Dilling

Fourth Advisor

Diego Riveros-Iregui

Fifth Advisor

Carol Wessman


Regional climate models project that precipitation in the Great Plains of North America will become characterized by more intense rainfall events separated by longer dry periods. Changing seasonal precipitation patterns may differentially favor grassland productivity in ecosystems dominated by either cool or warm season grass species, and thus influence carbon uptake and loss in these systems. Furthermore, model estimates of ecosystem respiration based primarily on soil temperature could overestimate respiration by failing to account for the effects from saturated conditions during heavy precipitation events. This research contrasted water and carbon fluxes during two years with different intra-annual precipitation within a cool season mixed grassland and compared to a neighboring warm season grassland in Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado, USA. Results from this study showed a significant positive relationship between the accumulated April/May precipitation and growing season carbon uptake in the cool season, smooth brome-dominated grassland. In addition, significant rainfall in the autumn of 2013 played a role in the early spring growth and carbon uptake in 2014. Comparisons between eddy covariance and soil flux-gradient observations and model estimates of soil respiration showed that during the extreme precipitation event in September 2013, processed-based models better characterized fluxes as compared to empirical models based on soil temperature. The study also found that the cool season grassland was a net sink of carbon during the spring and autumn whereas the neighboring warm season tallgrass prairie was a net sink during the summer. In addition, the study found that the grasslands had considerably different sensitivities to water limitations, with grasses in the tallgrass prairie having a higher water use efficiency (WUE). The comparison of the adjacent semiarid grasslands at Rocky Flats NWR improves our understanding of the response to changing precipitation between cool season and warm season dominated grasslands. This research underscores the importance of expanding grassland research to understand how the composition of grasses will influence carbon cycling, especially as precipitation patterns shift with changing climate. Moreover, this research will add to observations during extreme precipitation events, which can improve both empirical and process-based models of soil respiration.