Precipitation and Topography as Drivers of Tree Water Use and Productivity at Multiple Scales

Friday, 19 December 2014
Justin T Martin1, Jia Hu2, Nathaniel Thomas Looker1 and Kelsey G Jencso3, (1)Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, United States, (2)Montana State University Bozeman, Bozeman, MT, United States, (3)University of Montana, Missoula, MT, United States
Water is commonly the primary limiting factor for tree growth in semi-arid regions of the Western U.S. and tree productivity can vary drastically across landscapes as a function of water availability. The role of topography as a first order control on soil and ground water has been well studied; however, the strategies trees use to cope with water limitation in different landscape positions and across time remain unclear. As growing seasons progress, the availability of water changes temporally, as water inputs transition from snowmelt to rainfall, and spatially, as divergent positions dry more than convergent ones. We seek to understand how the interaction of these processes dictate where trees access water and which strategies most successfully avert water limitation of growth. We take advantage of clear differences in the isotopic signatures of snow and summer rain to track water utilized by Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, Subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and Western larch in both convergent and divergent landscape positions and across time. We couple these data with evidence of growth limitation inferred from reductions in lateral growth rates observed by continuous dendrometer measurements to link tree water use and productivity. Xylem waters reflect both the precipitation type and soil profile distribution of water used by trees for growth and dendrometer measurements reflect the effects of water limitation through changes in the lateral growth curve as soil moistures decline. Isotope signatures from rain, snow and stream water fell predictably along the local meteoric water line with values from xylem samples falling between those of rain and snow. Trees on southern aspects exhibit more growth limitation in divergent than convergent positions while this effect appears muted or non-existent on northern aspects. Trees in convergent hollow positions rely more on snow water while trees on slopes utilize more rain water. Surprisingly, trees at lower elevation rely more on snow water than trees at higher elevation, suggesting that trees in drier, low elevation sites are accessing deeper, older water from snowmelt throughout the growing season. Our research suggests previously under-recognized topographic and hydrologic modulation of tree growth at surprisingly small spatial and temporal scales.