Temporal Effects of Monsoon Rainfall Pulses on Plant Available Nitrogen in a Chihuahuan Desert Grassland

Renée F. Brown, Osvaldo E. Sala, Robert L. Sinsabaugh, Scott L. Collins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Drylands are often characterized by a pulse dynamics framework in which episodic rain events trigger brief pulses of biological activity and resource availability that regulate primary production. In the northern Chihuahuan Desert, growing season precipitation typically comes from monsoon rainstorms that stimulate soil microbial processes like decomposition, releasing inorganic nitrogen needed by plant processes. Compared to microbes, plants require greater amounts of soil moisture, typically from larger monsoon storms predicted to become less frequent and more intense in the future. Yet field-based studies linking rainfall pulses with soil nutrient dynamics are rare. Consequently, little is known about how changes in rainfall patterns may affect plant available nitrogen in dryland soils, particularly across temporal scales. We measured daily and seasonal responses of soil inorganic nitrogen and related parameters to experimentally applied small frequent and large infrequent rain events throughout a summer growing season in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland. Contrary to long-standing theories around resource pulse dynamics in drylands, nitrogen availability did not pulse following experimental rain events. Moreover, large infrequent events resulted in significantly less plant available nitrogen despite causing distinct pulses of increased soil moisture availability that persisted for several days. Overall, nitrogen availability increased over the growing season, especially following small frequent rain events that also stimulated some microbial ecoenzymatic activities. Our results suggest that projected changes in climate to fewer, larger rain events could significantly impact primary production in desert grasslands by decreasing plant available nitrogen when soil moisture is least limiting to plant growth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022JG006938
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • desert grassland
  • monsoon season
  • pulse dynamics
  • rainfall frequency
  • rainfall size
  • soil inorganic nitrogen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Palaeontology


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