Amplification of the hydrological cycle as a consequence of global warming is forecast to lead to more extreme intra-annual precipitation regimes characterized by larger rainfall events and longer intervals between events. We present a conceptual framework, based on past investigations and ecological theory, for predicting the consequences of this underappreciated aspect of climate change. We consider a broad range of terrestrial ecosystems that vary in their overall water balance. More extreme rainfall regimes are expected to increase the duration and severity of soil water stress in mesic ecosystems as intervals between rainfall events increase. In contrast, xeric ecosystems may exhibit the opposite response to extreme events. Larger but less frequent rainfall events may result in proportional reductions in evaporative losses in xeric systems, and thus may lead to greater soil water availability. Hydric (wetland) ecosystems are predicted to experience reduced periods of anoxia in response to prolonged intervals between rainfall events. Understanding these contingent effects of ecosystem water balance is necessary for predicting how more extreme precipitation regimes will modify ecosystem processes and alter interactions with related global change drivers.
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Vol. 58 • No. 9