In Forests Globally, Large Trees Suffer Most during Drought

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Amy C Bennett, University of New Mexico Main Campus, Albuquerque, NM, United States, Nathan G McDowell, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM, United States, Craig D Allen, USGS Jemez Mountains Field Station, Los Alamos, NM, United States and Kristina J Anderson-Teixeira, Smithsonian Institution, Front Royal, VA, United States
Globally, drought events are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Spatial and temporal variation in water availability is expected to alter the ecophysiology and structure of forests, with consequent feedbacks to climate change. Extensive tree mortality induced by heat and aridity has been documented across a range of latitudes, and several global vegetation models have simulated widespread forest die-off in the future. The impact of drought on forest structure and function will depend on the differential responses of trees of different sizes. Understanding the size-dependence of drought-induced mortality is necessary to predict local and global impacts. Here we show that in forests worldwide, drought has a greater impact on the growth and mortality of large trees compared to smaller trees. This trend holds true for forests ranging from semiarid woodlands to tropical rainforests. This finding contrasts with what would be expected if deep root access to water were the primary determinant of tree drought response. Rather, the greater drought response of larger trees could be driven by greater inherent vulnerability of large trees to hydraulic stress or by canopy position becoming more of a liability under drought, as exposed crowns face higher evaporative demand. These findings imply that future droughts will have a disproportionate effect on large trees, resulting in a larger feedback to climate change than would occur if all tree size classes were equally affected by drought.