Vegetation greenness, detected using digital photography, is useful for monitoring phenology of plant growth, carbon uptake and water loss at the ecosystem level. Assessing ecosystem phenology by greenness is especially useful in spatially extensive, water‐limited ecosystems such as the grasslands of the western United States, where productivity is moisture dependent and may become increasingly vulnerable to future climate change.
We used repeat photography and a novel means of quantifying greenness in digital photographs to assess how the individual and combined effects of warming and elevated CO 2 impact ecosystem phenology (greenness and plant cover) in a semi‐arid grassland over an 8‐year period.
Climate variability within and among years was the proximate driver of ecosystem phenology. Individual and combined effects of warming and elevated CO 2 were significant at times, but mediated by variation in both intra‐ and interannual precipitation. Specifically, warming generally enhanced plant cover and greenness early in the growing season but often had a negative effect during the middle of the summer, offsetting the early season positive effects. The individual effects of elevated CO 2 on plant cover and greenness were generally neutral.
Opposing seasonal variations in the effects of warming and less so elevated CO 2 cancelled each other out over an entire growing season, leading to no net effect of treatments on annual accumulation of greenness. The main effect of elevated CO 2 dampened quickly, but warming continued to affect plant cover and plot greenness throughout the experiment. The combination of warming and elevated CO 2 had a generally positive effect on greenness, especially early in the growing season and in later years of the experiment, enhanced annual greenness accumulation. However, interannual precipitation variation had larger effect on greenness, with two to three times greater greenness in wet years than in dry years.
Synthesis . Seasonal variation in timing and amount of precipitation governs grassland phenology, greenness and the potential for carbon uptake. Our results indicate that concurrent changes in precipitation regimes mediate vegetation responses to warming and elevated atmospheric CO 2 in semi‐arid grasslands. Even small changes in vegetation phenology and greenness in response to warming and rising atmospheric CO 2 concentrations, such as those we report here, can have large consequences for the future of grasslands.