Extreme climatic conditions are major drivers of ecosystem function and dynamics and their frequency is increasing under climate change. Climatic conditions interact with local microtopography, which might either buffer or exacerbate the degree of climatic stress. Here we sought to understand how extremely dry growing seasons affected the composition and productivity of desert ephemeral communities growing in sand dunes from the Gurbantunggut desert in Central Asia, and to which extent did microtopography modulate the response. We set up a rainfall manipulation study on four sand dune microtopographies and, during two consecutive years, we measured soil moisture, nutrients and texture, ephemeral layer composition, plant phenology, biomass accumulation and biomass allocation patterns for the dominant species. We observed significant biomass reductions during the extreme drought but plant community richness and composition were not affected, indicating that the composition of the ephemeral layer in this desert ecosystem may resist under extreme conditions. Additionally, extreme drought increased biomass allocation to reproductive organs of the dominant species. There were also significant microtopographic effects as the sensitivity of biomass to drought in western aspects was larger than in eastern aspects. Our results indicate that previously overlooked microtopographical differences may mediate the impact of climate change on plant communities. (c) 2020 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.