Simulated sensitivity of African terrestrial ecosystem photosynthesis to rainfall frequency, intensity, and rainy season length

Kaiyu Guan, Stephen P. Good, Kelly K. Caylor, David Medvigy, Ming Pan, Eric F. Wood, Hisashi Sato, Michela Biasutti, Min Chen, Anders Ahlström, Xiangtao Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


There is growing evidence of ongoing changes in the statistics of intra-seasonal rainfall variability over large parts of the world. Changes in annual total rainfall may arise from shifts, either singly or in a combination, of distinctive intra-seasonal characteristics -i.e. rainfall frequency, rainfall intensity, and rainfall seasonality. Understanding how various ecosystems respond to the changes in intra-seasonal rainfall characteristics is critical for predictions of future biome shifts and ecosystem services under climate change, especially for arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Here, we use an advanced dynamic vegetation model (SEIB-DGVM) coupled with a stochastic rainfall/weather simulator to answer the following question: how does the productivity of ecosystems respond to a given percentage change in the total seasonal rainfall that is realized by varying only one of the three rainfall characteristics (rainfall frequency, intensity, and rainy season length)? We conducted ensemble simulations for continental Africa for a realistic range of changes (-20% ∼ +20%) in total rainfall amount. We find that the simulated ecosystem productivity (measured by gross primary production, GPP) shows distinctive responses to the intra-seasonal rainfall characteristics. Specifically, increase in rainfall frequency can lead to 28% more GPP increase than the same percentage increase in rainfall intensity; in tropical woodlands, GPP sensitivity to changes in rainy season length is ∼4 times larger than to the same percentage changes in rainfall frequency or intensity. In contrast, shifts in the simulated biome distribution are much less sensitive to intra-seasonal rainfall characteristics than they are to total rainfall amount. Our results reveal three major distinctive productivity responses to seasonal rainfall variability - 'chronic water stress', 'acute water stress' and 'minimum water stress' - which are respectively associated with three broad spatial patterns of African ecosystem physiognomy, i.e. savannas, woodlands, and tropical forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number025013
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Africa
  • dynamic vegetation modeling
  • rainfall frequency
  • rainfall intensity
  • rainy season length
  • water stress


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