Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought

Abstract

Shifts in rainfall patterns and increasing temperatures associated with climate change are likely to cause widespread forest decline in regions where droughts are predicted to increase in duration and severity1. One primary cause of productivity loss and plant mortality during drought is hydraulic failure2,3,4. Drought stress creates trapped gas emboli in the water transport system, which reduces the ability of plants to supply water to leaves for photosynthetic gas exchange and can ultimately result in desiccation and mortality. At present we lack a clear picture of how thresholds to hydraulic failure vary across a broad range of species and environments, despite many individual experiments. Here we draw together published and unpublished data on the vulnerability of the transport system to drought-induced embolism for a large number of woody species, with a view to examining the likely consequences of climate change for forest biomes. We show that 70% of 226 forest species from 81 sites worldwide operate with narrow (<1 megapascal) hydraulic safety margins against injurious levels of drought stress and therefore potentially face long-term reductions in productivity and survival if temperature and aridity increase as predicted for many regions across the globe5,6. Safety margins are largely independent of mean annual precipitation, showing that there is global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought, with all forest biomes equally vulnerable to hydraulic failure regardless of their current rainfall environment. These findings provide insight into why drought-induced forest decline is occurring not only in arid regions but also in wet forests not normally considered at drought risk7,8.

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Figure 1: Minimum xylem pressure as a function of embolism resistance for 191 angiosperm and 32 gymnosperm species.
Figure 2: Box plot of hydraulic safety margins for angiosperm and gymnosperm species across forest biomes.
Figure 3: Embolism resistance as a function of mean annual precipitation for 384 angiosperm and 96 gymnosperm species.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the ARC-NZ Vegetation Function Network for hosting the original working group from which the data set was compiled. We are grateful to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for supporting B.C. during preparation of the manuscript.

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Contributions

B.C. and S.J. led the initial working group and coordinated the analysis and write-up of the work. B.C., S.J., T.J.B., H.C., S.D., R.B., S.J.B., T.S.F., S.M.G., U.G.H., A.L.J., F.L., H.M., J.M.-V., S.M., M.M., P.J.M., A.N., J.P., R.B.P., J.S.S., M.W., I.J.W. and A.E.Z. contributed to compilation and organization of the data set and writing of the manuscript. S.M.G. and I.J.W. extracted climate data from the WorldClim and CRU climate databases. H.M., M.M. and J.M.-V. assisted in statistical analyses of the data set.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steven Jansen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1 and 2 and additional references. (PDF 465 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

This file contains the dataset compiled from published work and unpublished data of the authors, including species names, Ψ50, Ψ88, Ψmin, safety margins, climate data, life form, biome, site data, and the sources of published data.This file was corrected on 23 January 2013 to correct an error in the dataset. (XLS 192 kb)

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Choat, B., Jansen, S., Brodribb, T. et al. Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought. Nature 491, 752–755 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11688

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