Critical climate periods for ANPP, flowering of three grasses, weight gain of calves, yearlings, and adults, as well as calving rates the following year for Konza. Gray bars indicate a negative effect of precipitation on the process, black positive.
If you look at the development of climate change research in grasslands, there have been two main stages. Climate Change 1.0 was trying to understand the importance of changes in growing season precipitation on ecosystem dynamics. Wet years are compared to dry years. Experiments that test climate change in 1.0 modify total precipitation.
We're still largely using Climate Change 1.0. Climate Change 2.0 examines effective precipitation during the growing season. Effective precipitation calculations largely take into account event size and distribution. Light rain events might lower effective precipitation as they are intercepted by canopies. Heavy rain events might lower effective due to greater flow through or runoff. Too light or too heavy and plants might not ever get a chance to use all the rain, hence lower effective precipitation. Some early-adopters are investigating Climate Change 2.0, but it's not mainstream yet. Certainly the projections and climate change models are not built to forecast in a manner that promotes 2.0.
One of my goals has been to push Climate Change 3.0. With 3.0, it's not just how much rain falls during the growing season, nor how much effective rain falls during the growing season. but when the rain falls. If you look at the critical climate periods for aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP), they largely show that 1.0 works--the more precipitation in the growing season, the more ANPP. For flowering of the major grasses, it's largely 1.0. Growing season precipitation largely determines flowering, with some differences among the species in their sensitivity to rainfall.
For Konza bison, there is just no relationship between growing season precipitation and weight gain for any sex or age class. But factor in the timing of precipitation, and you can explain up to 80% of the variation among years in weight gain. Why? It's because mid-season precipitation suppresses weight gain, while late-season precipitation promotes it. The climate-nutrition-performance cascade hits bison hard. Most likely, the same thing applies to cattle, although it hasn't been shown.
Climate Change 3.0 is nothing new conceptually. But in practice, 3.0 is. Training our models to predict when precipitation falls can be more important than how much falls for humid grasslands. Training ecologists to start to examine this will be probably be harder.