Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought


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 Here we draw together published and unpublished data on the vulnerability of the transport system to drought-induced embolism for a large number of woody species, with a view to examining the likely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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1

    Allen, C. D. et al. A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests. For. Ecol. Manage. 259, 660–684 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Brodribb, T. J. & Cochard, H. Hydraulic failure defines the recovery and point of death in water-stressed conifers. Plant Physiol. 149, 575–584 (2009)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Kursar, T. A. et al. Tolerance to low leaf water status of tropical tree seedlings is related to drought performance and distribution. Funct. Ecol. 23, 93–102 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    McDowell, N. et al. Mechanisms of plant survival and mortality during drought: why do some plants survive while others succumb to drought? New Phytol. 178, 719–739 (2008)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Allison, I. et al. The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science (Elsevier, 2009)

  6. 6

    Zhang, X. et al. Detection of human influence on twentieth-century precipitation trends. Nature 448, 461–465 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Meir, P. & Woodward, F. I. Amazonian rain forests and drought: response and vulnerability. New Phytol. 187, 553–557 (2010)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Phillips, O. L. et al. Drought sensitivity of the amazon rainforest. Science 323, 1344–1347 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Engelbrecht, B. M. J. et al. Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests. Nature 447, 80–82 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Pockman, W. T. & Sperry, J. S. Vulnerability to xylem cavitation and the distribution of Sonoran desert vegetation. Am. J. Bot. 87, 1287–1299 (2000)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    McDowell, N. G. et al. The interdependence of mechanisms underlying climate-driven vegetation mortality. Trends Ecol. Evol. 26, 523–532 (2011)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Anderegg, W. R. L. et al. The roles of hydraulic and carbon stress in a widespread climate-induced forest die-off. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 233–237 (2012)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Breshears, D. D. et al. Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 15144–15148 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Zhao, M. & Running, S. W. Drought-induced reduction in global terrestrial net primary production from 2000 through 2009. Science 329, 940–943 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Lewis, S. L. Tropical forests and the changing earth system. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 361, 195–210 (2006)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Pockman, W. T., Sperry, J. S. & O’Leary, J. W. Sustained and significant negative water pressure in xylem. Nature 378, 715–716 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Tyree, M. T. & Sperry, J. S. Vulnerability of xylem to cavitation and embolism. Annu. Rev. Plant Phys. Mol. Bio. 40, 19–38 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Sperry, J. S., Hacke, U. G. & Pittermann, J. Size and function in conifer tracheids and angiosperm vessels. Am. J. Bot. 93, 1490–1500 (2006)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Maherali, H., Pockman, W. T. & Jackson, R. B. Adaptive variation in the vulnerability of woody plants to xylem cavitation. Ecology 85, 2184–2199 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Delzon, S., Douthe, C., Sala, A. & Cochard, H. Mechanism of water-stress induced cavitation in conifers: bordered pit structure and function support the hypothesis of seal capillary-seeding. Plant Cell Environ. 33, 2101–2111 (2010)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Sperry, J. S., Adler, F. R., Campbell, G. S. & Comstock, J. P. Limitation of plant water use by rhizosphere and xylem conductance: results from a model. Plant Cell Environ. 21, 347–359 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Alder, N. N., Sperry, J. S. & Pockman, W. T. Root and stem xylem embolism, stomatal conductance, and leaf turgor in Acer grandidentatum populations along a soil moisture gradient. Oecologia 105, 293–301 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Meinzer, F. C., Johnson, D. M., Lachenbruch, B., McCulloh, K. A. & Woodruff, D. R. Xylem hydraulic safety margins in woody plants: coordination of stomatal control of xylem tension with hydraulic capacitance. Funct. Ecol. 23, 922–930 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Brodersen, C. R., McElrone, A. J., Choat, B., Matthews, M. A. & Shackel, K. A. The dynamics of embolism repair in xylem: in vivo visualizations using high-resolution computed tomography. Plant Physiol. 154, 1088–1095 (2010)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Brodribb, T. J., Bowman, D. J. M. S., Nichols, S., Delzon, S. & Burlett, R. Xylem function and growth rate interact to determine recovery rates after exposure to extreme water deficit. New Phytol. 188, 533–542 (2010)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Martínez-Vilalta, J., Sala, A. & Piñol, J. The hydraulic architecture of Pinaceae—a review. Plant Ecol. 171, 3–13 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Choat, B., Ball, M. C., Luly, J. G. & Holtum, J. A. M. Hydraulic architecture of deciduous and evergreen dry rainforest tree species from north-eastern Australia. Trees 19, 305–311 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Scholz, F. G., Phillips, N. G., Bucci, S. J., Meinzer, F. C. & Goldstein, G. in Size- and Age-Related Changes in Tree Structure and Function Vol. 4 (eds Meinzer, F. C. et al.). 341–361 (Springer, 2011)

  29. 29

    Lamy, J. B. et al. Uniform selection as a primary force reducing population genetic differentiation of cavitation resistance across a species range. PLoS ONE 6, e23476 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Wortemann, R. et al. Genotypic variability and phenotypic plasticity of cavitation resistance in Fagus sylvatica L. across Europe. Tree Physiol. 31, 1175–1182 (2011)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

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)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Choat, B., Jansen, S., Brodribb, T. et al. Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought. Nature 491, 752–755 (2012).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter for a daily update on COVID-19 science.
Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing