Pulses of water availability characterize semiarid and arid ecosystems. Most precipitation events in these ecosystems are small (≤10 mm), but can stimulate carbon flux. The large proportion of carbon stored belowground and small carbon inputs create the potential for these small precipitation events to have large effects on carbon cycling. Land-use change can modify these effects through alteration of the biota and soil resources. The goal of our research was to determine how small precipitation events (2, 5, and 10 mm) affected the dynamics of soil carbon flux and water loss in previously cultivated Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields and undisturbed shortgrass steppe. Total carbon loss and duration of elevated carbon flux increased as event size increased in all field types. Time since cultivation increased in importance for carbon flux as event size increased. A comparison of water loss rates to carbon flux suggests that water is limiting to carbon flux for the smallest events, but is less limiting for events above 5 mm. We also describe how water availability interacts with temperature in controlling carbon flux rate. We conclude that small precipitation events have the potential for large short-term losses of carbon in the shortgrass steppe.
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