Hotter Drought, Disturbance Process Thresholds, and Reorganization of Forest Ecosystems and Watersheds in the Southwestern USA, and Beyond

Monday, 14 December 2015: 09:00
2004 (Moscone West)
Craig D Allen, Organization Not Listed, Washington, DC, United States
Extensive high-severity wildfires and drought-induced tree mortality (including drought-and-heat-related insect pest outbreaks), along with associated major alterations of watershed conditions and hydrological processes, have intensified over the last two decades in Southwest USA forests and woodlands—on a scale unseen regionally since at least pre-1900, and quite possibly not for millennia, based on diverse lines of paleo-ecological and geomorphic evidence. Historical land-use patterns, decadal-scale climate variability (e.g., drought linked to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation), and warming temperatures in recent decades (resulting in “hotter drought” conditions) have been important interactive drivers of observed nonlinear threshold changes in these forest disturbance processes. In response, Southwest forest landscapes have been rapidly transitioning toward more open and drought-tolerant ecosystems, with altered ecohydrological patterns. If regional temperatures increase as projected by climate models, multiple lines of evidence (experiments, observations, empirical models, process models) suggest that Southwest drought stress after ca. 2050 will increasingly exceed that of the most severe droughts in the past 1,000 years, putting current historical forests at grave risk—in particular the tallest (& often the oldest) trees and forests. These findings point toward the emergence of increasingly novel vegetation patterns over the course of this century. Forests globally exhibit great diversity in environmental drivers, histories, dominant ecological patterns and processes, biodiversity, etc., which are expected to produce diverse forest responses (and levels of resilience) to projected global changes in climate and human uses this century. Even given this planetary diversity of forests and expected global change responses, the observed reorganization of forests underway in the Southwest USA – driven by the convergence of changes in land use patterns, disturbance trends, and climate (particularly hotter droughts) – may foreshadow widespread forest ecosystem changes more broadly in North America and beyond. Analogous global examples of recent increases in forest disturbance levels related to threshold responses to hotter droughts also will be presented.