Legacies of precipitation fluctuations on primary production: Theory and data synthesis

Osvaldo Sala, Laureano A. Gherardi, Lara Reichmann, Esteban Jobbágy, Debra Peters

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

444 Scopus citations


Variability of above-ground net primary production (ANPP) of arid to sub-humid ecosystems displays a closer association with precipitation when considered across space (based on multiyear averages for different locations) than through time (based on year-to-year change at single locations). Here, we propose a theory of controls of ANPP based on four hypotheses about legacies of wet and dry years that explains space versus time differences in ANPP-precipitation relationships. We tested the hypotheses using 16 long-term series of ANPP. We found that legacies revealed by the association of current- versus previous-year conditions through the temporal series occur across all ecosystem types from deserts to mesic grasslands. Therefore, previous-year precipitation and ANPP control a significant fraction of current-year production. We developed unified models for the controls of ANPP through space and time. The relative importance of current-versus previous-year precipitation changes along a gradient of mean annual precipitation with the importance of current-year PPT decreasing, whereas the importance of previous-year PPT remains constant as mean annual precipitation increases. Finally, our results suggest that ANPP will respond to climate-change-driven alterations in water availability and, more importantly, that the magnitude of the response will increase with time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3135-3144
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1606
StatePublished - 2012


  • Legacies
  • Precipitation effects
  • Primary production
  • Spatial and temporal models

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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