How maize yield response to precipitation varies across a large spatial scale is unclear compared with the well-understood temperature response, even though precipitation change is more erratic with greater spatial heterogeneity. This study provides a spatial-explicit quantification of maize yield response to precipitation in the contiguous United States and investigates how precipitation response is altered by natural and human factors using statistical and crop model data. We find the precipitation responses are highly heterogeneous with inverted-U (40.3%) being the leading response type, followed by unresponsive (30.39%), and linear increase (28.6%). The optimal precipitation threshold derived from inverted-U response exhibits considerable spatial variations, which is higher under wetter, hotter, and well-drainage conditions but lower under drier, cooler, and poor-drainage conditions. Irrigation alters precipitation response by making yield either unresponsive to precipitation or having lower optimal thresholds than rainfed conditions. We further find that the observed precipitation responses of maize yield are misrepresented in crop models, with a too high percentage of increase type (59.0% versus 29.6%) and an overestimation in optimal precipitation threshold by ∼90 mm. These two factors explain about 30% and 85% of the inter-model yield overestimation biases under extreme rainfall conditions. Our study highlights the large spatial heterogeneity and the key role of human management in the precipitation responses of maize yield, which need to be better characterized in crop modeling and food security assessment under climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number014016
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • climate variability
  • crop models
  • maize
  • precipitation
  • yield response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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