Multi-scale predictions of massive conifer mortality due to chronic temperature rise

  • An Addendum to this article was published on 26 October 2016

Abstract

Global temperature rise and extremes accompanying drought threaten forests1,2 and their associated climatic feedbacks3,4. Our ability to accurately simulate drought-induced forest impacts remains highly uncertain5,6 in part owing to our failure to integrate physiological measurements, regional-scale models, and dynamic global vegetation models (DGVMs). Here we show consistent predictions of widespread mortality of needleleaf evergreen trees (NET) within Southwest USA by 2100 using state-of-the-art models evaluated against empirical data sets. Experimentally, dominant Southwest USA NET species died when they fell below predawn water potential (Ψpd) thresholds (April–August mean) beyond which photosynthesis, hydraulic and stomatal conductance, and carbohydrate availability approached zero. The evaluated regional models accurately predicted NET Ψpd, and 91% of predictions (10 out of 11) exceeded mortality thresholds within the twenty-first century due to temperature rise. The independent DGVMs predicted ≥50% loss of Northern Hemisphere NET by 2100, consistent with the NET findings for Southwest USA. Notably, the global models underestimated future mortality within Southwest USA, highlighting that predictions of future mortality within global models may be underestimates. Taken together, the validated regional predictions and the global simulations predict widespread conifer loss in coming decades under projected global warming.

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Figure 1: Observations and theoretical drivers of increasing conifer mortality.
Figure 2: Predawn Ψ measurements are strongly correlated with the mechanisms of mortality6.
Figure 3: Predictions of climate and forest mortality for Southwestern USA to AD 2100.
Figure 4: Dynamic global vegetation models predictions of NET percentage losses between 2000 and 2100.

Change history

  • 07 October 2016

    This Letter has an addendum associated with it, for details see pdf.

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Acknowledgements

This work was financially supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, by Los Alamos National Lab’s Lab Directed Research and Development programme, by NSF-EAR-0724958 and NSF-EF-1340624, and also by ANR-13-AGRO-MACACC, and NSF-IOS-1549959, by the Department of Agriculture AFRI-NIFA programme, by the U.S.G.S. Climate and Land Use Program, and by a National Science Foundation grant to the University of New Mexico for Long Term Ecological Research.

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N.G.M. and W.T.P. designed the experiment. A.P.W., C.X., D.S.M., J.O., J.C.D., R.A.F., X.J., J.D.M., S.A.R. and C.K. performed model simulations. N.G.M. performed measurements. L.T.D., S.S., R.P., J.L., J.P. and N.G.M. collected measurements. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to N. G. McDowell.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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McDowell, N., Williams, A., Xu, C. et al. Multi-scale predictions of massive conifer mortality due to chronic temperature rise. Nature Clim Change 6, 295–300 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2873

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