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Darcy's law predicts widespread forest mortality under climate warming



Drought and heat-induced tree mortality is accelerating in many forest biomes as a consequence of a warming climate, resulting in a threat to global forests unlike any in recorded history1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. Forests store the majority of terrestrial carbon, thus their loss may have significant and sustained impacts on the global carbon cycle11,12. We use a hydraulic corollary to Darcy’s law, a core principle of vascular plant physiology13, to predict characteristics of plants that will survive and die during drought under warmer future climates. Plants that are tall with isohydric stomatal regulation, low hydraulic conductance, and high leaf area are most likely to die from future drought stress. Thus, tall trees of old-growth forests are at the greatest risk of loss, which has ominous implications for terrestrial carbon storage. This application of Darcy’s law indicates today’s forests generally should be replaced by shorter and more xeric plants, owing to future warmer droughts and associated wildfires and pest attacks. The Darcy’s corollary also provides a simple, robust framework for informing forest management interventions needed to promote the survival of current forests. Given the robustness of Darcy’s law for predictions of vascular plant function, we conclude with high certainty that today’s forests are going to be subject to continued increases in mortality rates that will result in substantial reorganization of their structure and carbon storage.

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Figure 1: Examples of mortality of taller trees and survival of shorter trees.
Figure 2: The plant-hydraulic corollary to Darcy’s law allows estimates of physiological and structural responses to climate change.
Figure 3: Reducing stand density through sustainable harvesting can increase the resilience of forests to drought.

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The writing of this manuscript was supported by a European Union grant EUFORINNO, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Ecosystems and Climate-Land Use programs of the US Geological Survey.

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N.G.M. developed the theory, conducted analyses and wrote the manuscript. C.D.A. provided supportive data and co-wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nathan G. McDowell.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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McDowell, N., Allen, C. Darcy's law predicts widespread forest mortality under climate warming. Nature Clim Change 5, 669–672 (2015).

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