Geruo, A; Velicogna, I; Zhao, M; Colliander, A; Kimball, JS (2020). Satellite detection of varying seasonal water supply restrictions on grassland productivity in the Missouri basin, USA. REMOTE SENSING OF ENVIRONMENT, 239, 111623.

Climate observations indicate more frequent drought in recent years, and model predictions suggest that drought occurrence will continue to rise with global warming. Understanding drought impacts on ecosystem functioning requires accurate quantification of vegetation sensitivity to changes in water supply condition. This is complicated by the seasonal variation in plant structural and physiological response to water stress, especially for semi-arid grasslands with characteristic strong spatial and temporal variability in carbon uptake. Here, we use complementary satellite soil moisture (SM) and total water storage (TWS) observations to delineate plant-accessible water supply variations for natural grasslands in the Missouri basin, USA. We evaluate how water supply influences the spatiotemporal variations in grassland productivity as a function of seasonal timing and climate condition. We identify a 128-day period from mid-June to early October when grassland growth is sensitive to soil moisture changes. We find the strongest SM sensitivity after the peak of the growing season associated with high temperature and VPD. SM limitation can extend to early and late growing season under warm conditions, while grassland sensitivity to SM is generally stronger in the late growth stage than in the green-up period given similar temperature and soil moisture. We find that complementary to the surface SM observations, TWS provides plant-available water storage information from the deeper soil, and both SM and TWS exert a lagged impact on grassland productivity. We find that the lag between the inter-annual variation of SM and associated plant response increases through the season, and overall there is a transition from SM-limitation to TWS-limitation on productivity during the late growing period when the TWS level is near the seasonal low. Future global change projections should account for a seasonally varying vegetation-moisture relationship to accurately assess the impact of the water supply constraint on plant productivity in a warming climate.