Both ecosystem carbon gain and nutrient availability are largely constrained by the magnitude and seasonality of precipitation in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. We investigated the role of precipitation on ecosystem processes along an International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) transect in temperate South America. The transect consists of a contiguous precipitation gradient in the southern region of Argentinean Patagonia (44–45° S), from 100 mm to 800 mm mean annual precipitation (MAP) and vegetation ranging from desert scrub to closed canopy forest. Gravimetric soil water content tracked changes in seasonal and annual precipitation, with a linear increase in soil water content with increasing MAP. Above-ground net primary production (ANPP) increased linearly along the gradient of precipitation (ANPP = − 31.2 0.52 MAP, r2 = 0.84, p = 0.028), supporting the relationship that carbon assimilation is largely controlled by available water in these sites, and was in general agreement with regional models of ANPP and rainfall. However, inorganic soil nitrogen was also highly linearly correlated with both MAP ([N] = 0.19 MAP − 32, r2 = 0.96, p = 0.003) and ANPP (ANPP = 2.6 [Ninorganic] 59.4, r2 = 0.79, p = 0.042), suggesting a direct control of precipitation on nitrogen turnover and an interaction with nitrogen availability in controlling carbon gain. The asynchrony of precipitation and changes in dominant vegetation may play important roles in determining the carbon-nitrogen interactions along this rainfall gradient.
Abbreviations: ANPP = Above-ground net primary production, IGBP = International Geosphere Biosphere Programme; MAP = Mean annual precipitation.