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Tall Amazonian forests are less sensitive to precipitation variability

Abstract

Climate change is altering the dynamics, structure and function of the Amazon, a biome deeply connected to the Earth’s carbon cycle. Climate factors that control the spatial and temporal variations in forest photosynthesis have been well studied, but the influence of forest height and age on this controlling effect has rarely been considered. Here, we present remote sensing observations of solar-induced fluorescence (a proxy for photosynthesis), precipitation, vapour-pressure deficit and canopy height, together with estimates of forest age and aboveground biomass. We show that photosynthesis in tall Amazonian forests, that is, forests above 30 m, is three times less sensitive to precipitation variability than in shorter (less than 20 m) forests. Taller Amazonian forests are also found to be older, have more biomass and deeper rooting systems1, which enable them to access deeper soil moisture and make them more resilient to drought. We suggest that forest height and age are an important control of photosynthesis in response to interannual precipitation fluctuations. Although older and taller trees show less sensitivity to precipitation variations, they are more susceptible to fluctuations in vapour-pressure deficit. Our findings illuminate the response of Amazonian forests to water stress, droughts and climate change.

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Fig. 1: Spatial patterns of canopy characteristics and interannual variability of climatic drivers between 2007 and 2015.
Fig. 2: Correlation of tree height with canopy characteristics and precipitation.
Fig. 3: Variations of SIF sensitivity to VPD and precipitation binned by tree height and precipitation.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Columbia Water Center for comments, in particular J. Green. The authors also thank the providers of the other data sets used in this study.

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F.G., D.K., A.G.K. and P.G. wrote the main manuscript text. F.G., P.G., D.K. and S.H.A. prepared figures. F.G., P.G. and A.G.K. designed the study. F.G., D.K., A.G.K., M.U. and R.S.O. reviewed and edited the manuscript. D.K. performed the plant hydraulics simulations.

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Correspondence to Pierre Gentine.

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Giardina, F., Konings, A.G., Kennedy, D. et al. Tall Amazonian forests are less sensitive to precipitation variability. Nature Geosci 11, 405–409 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0133-5

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