Larger trees suffer most during drought in forests worldwide

Abstract

The frequency of severe droughts is increasing in many regions around the world as a result of climate change13. Droughts alter the structure and function of forests4,5. Site- and region-specific studies suggest that large trees, which play keystone roles in forests6 and can be disproportionately important to ecosystem carbon storage7 and hydrology8, exhibit greater sensitivity to drought than small trees4,5,9,10. Here, we synthesize data on tree growth and mortality collected during 40 drought events in forests worldwide to see whether this size-dependent sensitivity to drought holds more widely. We find that droughts consistently had a more detrimental impact on the growth and mortality rates of larger trees. Moreover, drought-related mortality increased with tree size in 65% of the droughts examined, especially when community-wide mortality was high or when bark beetles were present. The more pronounced drought sensitivity of larger trees could be underpinned by greater inherent vulnerability to hydraulic stress1114, the higher radiation and evaporative demand experienced by exposed crowns4,15, and the tendency for bark beetles to preferentially attack larger trees16. We suggest that future droughts will have a more detrimental impact on the growth and mortality of larger trees, potentially exacerbating feedbacks to climate change.

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Figure 1: Global distribution of instances of drought impacts on forests reviewed in this study.
Figure 2: Drought responses of diameter growth rate and mortality rate as a function of tree size.
Figure 3: Size dependence of drought-related mortality and its relationship to community-wide mortality.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to all authors of the original studies included in this analysis; to J.A. Lutz, S.M. McMahon, A.D. Miller, A.J. Tepley, L. Poorter and A. Macalady for helpful feedback, and to J. Park, E. Bowman, M. Wang and J. Pearce for help with literature review and data compilation. This research was funded by a Smithsonian Competitive Grants Program for Science grant to KAT. NGM was supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, including through the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) Tropics project and through Los Alamos National Lab's Laboratory Directed Research and Development. C.D.A. was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey's Ecosystems and Climate & Land Use Change mission areas, through the USGS Western Mountain Initiative project. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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K.A.T., A.C.B. and N.G.M. conceived and designed the analysis, A.C.B., C.D.A. and K.A.T. compiled data; K.A.T. and A.C.B. analysed data; A.C.B., K.A.T., N.G.M. and C.D.A wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kristina J. Anderson-Teixeira.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Bennett, A., McDowell, N., Allen, C. et al. Larger trees suffer most during drought in forests worldwide. Nature Plants 1, 15139 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2015.139

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