Letter | Published:

Tree mortality predicted from drought-induced vascular damage

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 367371 (2015) | Download Citation


The projected responses of forest ecosystems to warming and drying associated with twenty-first-century climate change vary widely from resiliency to widespread tree mortality1,2,3. Current vegetation models lack the ability to account for mortality of overstorey trees during extreme drought owing to uncertainties in mechanisms and thresholds causing mortality4,5. Here we assess the causes of tree mortality, using field measurements of branch hydraulic conductivity during ongoing mortality in Populus tremuloides in the southwestern United States and a detailed plant hydraulics model. We identify a lethal plant water stress threshold that corresponds with a loss of vascular transport capacity from air entry into the xylem. We then use this hydraulic-based threshold to simulate forest dieback during historical drought, and compare predictions against three independent mortality data sets. The hydraulic threshold predicted with 75% accuracy regional patterns of tree mortality as found in field plots and mortality maps derived from Landsat imagery. In a high-emissions scenario, climate models project that drought stress will exceed the observed mortality threshold in the southwestern United States by the 2050s. Our approach provides a powerful and tractable way of incorporating tree mortality into vegetation models to resolve uncertainty over the fate of forest ecosystems in a changing climate.

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W.R.L.A. thanks the NSF DDIG grant for research funding and equipment. W.R.L.A. was supported in part by the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship program and an award from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Fellowship Program (DOE SCGF). C-y.H. was sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan and National Taiwan University. F.W.D. was supported in part by the National Science Foundation Macrosystems Biology Program, NSF no. EF-1065864. J.A.B. and C.B.F. were supported by the Carnegie Institution for Science. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Methods of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Guyot Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • William R. L. Anderegg
  2. United States Geological Survey, Sacramento, California 95819, USA

    • Alan Flint
    •  & Lorraine Flint
  3. Department of Geography, National Taiwan University, Taipei 10617, Taiwan

    • Cho-ying Huang
  4. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Joseph A. Berry
    •  & Christopher B. Field
  5. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, 2400 Bren Hall, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Frank W. Davis
  6. Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • John S. Sperry


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W.R.L.A., J.A.B. and C.B.F. conceived the experiment. W.R.L.A. collected the data and W.R.L.A. and A.F. ran the models. C-y.H., L.F., F.W.D. and J.S.S. contributed new analytic tools. W.R.L.A. wrote the paper with all authors adding revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William R. L. Anderegg.

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