Modifying rainfall patterns in a Mediterranean shrubland: system design, plant responses, and experimental burning


Global warming is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Mediterranean region, as well as the occurrence of large fires. Understanding the interactions between drought, fire and plant responses is therefore important. In this study, we present an experiment in which rainfall patterns were modified to simulate various levels of drought in a Mediterranean shrubland of central Spain dominated by Cistus ladanifer, Erica arborea and Phillyrea angustifolia. A system composed of automatic rainout shelters with an irrigation facility was used. It was designed to be applied in vegetation 2 m tall, treat relatively large areas (36 m(2)), and be quickly dismantled to perform experimental burning and reassembled back again. Twenty plots were subjected to four rainfall treatments from early spring: natural rainfall, long-term average rainfall (2 months drought), moderate drought (25% reduction from long-term rainfall, 5 months drought) and severe drought (45% reduction, 7 months drought). The plots were burned in late summer, without interfering with rainfall manipulations. Results indicated that rainfall manipulations caused differences in soil moisture among treatments, leading to reduced water availability and growth of C. ladanifer and E. arborea in the drought treatments. However, P. angustifolia was not affected by the manipulations. Rainout shelters had a negligible impact on plot microenvironment. Experimental burns were of high fire intensity, without differences among treatments. Our system provides a tool to study the combined effects of drought and fire on vegetation, which is important to assess the threats posed by climate change in Mediterranean environments.