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Tree mortality predicted from drought-induced vascular damage

  • Author(s): Anderegg, WRL;
  • Flint, A;
  • Huang, CY;
  • Flint, L;
  • Berry, JA;
  • Davis, FW;
  • Sperry, JS;
  • Field, CB
  • et al.

Published Web Location

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2400
Abstract

The projected responses of forest ecosystems to warming and drying associated with twenty-first-century climate change vary widely from resiliency to widespread tree mortality. Current vegetation models lack the ability to account for mortality of overstorey trees during extreme drought owing to uncertainties in mechanisms and thresholds causing mortality. Here we assess the causes of tree mortality, using field measurements of branch hydraulic conductivity during ongoing mortality in Populus tremuloides in the southwestern United States and a detailed plant hydraulics model. We identify a lethal plant water stress threshold that corresponds with a loss of vascular transport capacity from air entry into the xylem. We then use this hydraulic-based threshold to simulate forest dieback during historical drought, and compare predictions against three independent mortality data sets. The hydraulic threshold predicted with 75% accuracy regional patterns of tree mortality as found in field plots and mortality maps derived from Landsat imagery. In a high-emissions scenario, climate models project that drought stress will exceed the observed mortality threshold in the southwestern United States by the 2050s. Our approach provides a powerful and tractable way of incorporating tree mortality into vegetation models to resolve uncertainty over the fate of forest ecosystems in a changing climate.

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