Impacts of altered precipitation regimes on soil communities and biogeochemistry in arid and semi-arid ecosystems

Uffe N. Nielsen, Rebecca Ball

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

354 Scopus citations


Altered precipitation patterns resulting from climate change will have particularly significant consequences in water-limited ecosystems, such as arid to semi-arid ecosystems, where discontinuous inputs of water control biological processes. Given that these ecosystems cover more than a third of Earth's terrestrial surface, it is important to understand how they respond to such alterations. Altered water availability may impact both aboveground and belowground communities and the interactions between these, with potential impacts on ecosystem functioning; however, most studies to date have focused exclusively on vegetation responses to altered precipitation regimes. To synthesize our understanding of potential climate change impacts on dryland ecosystems, we present here a review of current literature that reports the effects of precipitation events and altered precipitation regimes on belowground biota and biogeochemical cycling. Increased precipitation generally increases microbial biomass and fungal:bacterial ratio. Few studies report responses to reduced precipitation but the effects likely counter those of increased precipitation. Altered precipitation regimes have also been found to alter microbial community composition but broader generalizations are difficult to make. Changes in event size and frequency influences invertebrate activity and density with cascading impacts on the soil food web, which will likely impact carbon and nutrient pools. The long-term implications for biogeochemical cycling are inconclusive but several studies suggest that increased aridity may cause decoupling of carbon and nutrient cycling. We propose a new conceptual framework that incorporates hierarchical biotic responses to individual precipitation events more explicitly, including moderation of microbial activity and biomass by invertebrate grazing, and use this framework to make some predictions on impacts of altered precipitation regimes in terms of event size and frequency as well as mean annual precipitation. While our understanding of dryland ecosystems is improving, there is still a great need for longer term in situ manipulations of precipitation regime to test our model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1407-1421
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015


  • Arid
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Climate change
  • Dryland
  • Microbes
  • Nutrient dynamics
  • Precipitation
  • Semi-arid
  • Soil fauna
  • Soil respiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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