High Vapor Pressure Deficit Decreases the Productivity and Water Use Efficiency of Rain-Induced Pulses in Semiarid Ecosystems

Matthew C. Roby, Russell L. Scott, David J.P. Moore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Intermittent rain events drive dynamic pulses of carbon and water exchange in many arid and semiarid ecosystems. Although soil moisture is known to control these pulses, the effect of atmospheric dryness on pulses is not well documented. Here we hypothesized that vapor pressure deficit (VPD) modulates net ecosystem production (NEP) and ecosystem-scale water use efficiency (WUE) during pulse events due to its effects on canopy stomatal conductance and evapotranspiration. We quantified relationships between VPD and carbon and water exchange during growing season rain events and tested their generality across four semiarid flux sites with varied vegetation in the southwest United States. Across grassland, shrubland, and savanna sites, we found that high VPD during pulses suppressed ecosystem photosynthesis and surface conductance to a greater degree than respiration or evapotranspiration, particularly when soil moisture was high. Thus, periods of high VPD were associated with a 13–64% reduction in NEP and an 11–25% decrease in WUE, relative to moderate VPD conditions. Sites dominated by shrubs with the C3 photosynthetic pathway were more sensitive to VPD than sites dominated by C4 grasses. We found that a 1 kPa increase in VPD reduced the average NEP of pulse events by 13–56%, which illustrates the potential for projected increases in atmospheric demand to reduce the net productivity of semiarid ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020JG005665
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • VPD
  • carbon
  • eddy covariance
  • pulse
  • semiarid
  • water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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