Beyond MAP: A guide to dimensions of rainfall variability for tropical ecology

Naomi B. Schwartz, Benjamin R. Lintner, Xue Feng, Jennifer S. Powers

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Tropical ecologists have long recognized rainfall as the key climate filter shaping tropical ecosystem structure and function across space and time. Still, tropical ecologists have historically had a limited toolkit for characterizing rainfall, largely relying on simple metrics like mean annual precipitation (MAP) and dry season length to characterize rainfall regimes that vary along many more dimensions. Here, we review methods for quantifying dimensions of rainfall variability on multiple time scales, with a focus on ecological applications of these methods. We also discuss key considerations for tropical ecologists looking to use rainfall metrics that better align with hypothesized biological or ecological mechanisms or that more effectively describe rainfall variability in the systems we study and provide a toolkit (R scripts and gridded datasets) to do so. We argue that incorporating more sophisticated approaches to quantify rainfall variability into study design and statistical analyses will enhance our understanding of past, ongoing, and future changes in tropical ecosystems. Abstract in Spanish is available with online material.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StateAccepted/In press - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dan Du for conducting the literature survey, and German Vargas and Laura Toro for help with the Spanish translation of the Abstract. NBS thanks NSF PRFB 1711366. JSP gratefully acknowledges funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, Award DE-SC0014363.


  • climate change
  • climate variability
  • precipitation
  • seasonal ecosystem

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