Persistence of a Severe Drought Increases Desertification but not Woody Dieback in Semiarid Savanna

L. Wonkka Carissa, Dirac Twidwell, Trenton E. Franz, Charles A. Taylor, William E. Rogers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Increases in precipitation variability, coupledwith higher temperatures, will lead to greater frequencies of severe, prolonged droughts for many regions with the expectation of attendant increases in woody plant die-off events. We took advantage of a 2-yr extension of a severe drought following an initial study of woody plant dieback in a woody-encroached semiarid savanna in west-central Texas, United States. This study tests for the emergence of alternative vegetation trajectories as a result of continued drought persistence: 1) whether additional woody plant dieback occurred following the initial study, leading to a grass-dominated community, or 2) whether desertification became amajor feature (defined as a loss of herbaceous cover and increase in bare ground). Neither the emergence of a grass-dominated community nor the prevalence of desertification was observed during the initial study. After 2 additional yr of drought, we found that dieback of woody plants did not increase above previously observed levels, suggesting that the prolongation of drought did not cause the emergence of a grassdominated community in this heavily encroached rangeland. However, drought severity did lead to increases in desertification, with increases in bare ground owed to declines in grass cover. While previous research at this long-term research site suggests that desertification is transient with grasses rebounding once precipitation returns to predrought levels, rangelandmanagers should be aware of lags in vegetation response to drought and the increased potential for a shift toward a bare-ground dominated community following extended extreme drought. In this Texas semiarid savanna, major losses in herbaceous cover lagged behind woody plant dieback, so dieback of the woody component might hold promise as an indicator for near-termpotential of desertification.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)491-498
Number of pages8
JournalRangeland Ecology and Management
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2016


  • climate change adaptation
  • drought effects
  • ecological indicators
  • episodic dieback
  • grass-tree codominance
  • vegetation lags

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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