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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $15.58 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Sternberg, L. et al. Root distribution in an Amazonian seasonal forest as derived from δ13C profiles. Plant Soil 205, 45–50 (1998).
Pan, Y. et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world’s forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011).
Betts, R. et al. The role of ecosystem–atmosphere interactions in simulated Amazonian precipitation decrease and forest dieback under global climate warming. Theor. Appl. Climatol. 78, 157–175 (2004).
Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate–carbon cycle feedback analysis: results from the C4MIP model Intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).
Jiménez-Muñoz, J. C. et al. Record-breaking warming and extreme drought in the Amazon rainforest during the course of El Niño 2015–2016. Sci. Rep. 6, 5204 (2016).
Espinoza, J. C. et al. Climate variability and extreme drought in the upper Solimões River (western Amazon Basin): understanding the exceptional 2010 drought. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L13406 (2011).
Brando, P. M. et al. Seasonal and interannual variability of climate and vegetation indices across the Amazon. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 14685–14690 (2010).
Phillips, O. L. et al. Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest. Science 323, 1344–1347 (2009).
Doughty, C. E. et al. Drought impact on forest carbon dynamics and fluxes in Amazonia. Nature 519, 78–82 (2015).
Feldpausch, T. R. et al. Amazon forest response to repeated droughts. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 30, 964–982 (2016).
Gatti, L. V. et al. Drought sensitivity of Amazonian carbon balance revealed by atmospheric measurements. Nature 506, 76–80 (2014).
Lewis, S. L., Brando, P. M., Phillips, O. L., van der Heijden, G. M. F. & Nepstad, D. The 2010 Amazon drought. Science 331, 554–554 (2011).
Saleska, S. R., Didan, K., Huete, A. R. & da Rocha, H. R. Amazon forests green-up during 2005 drought. Science 318, 612 (2007).
Samanta, A. et al. Amazon forests did not green-up during the 2005 drought. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L13406 (2010).
Morton, D. C. et al. Amazon forests maintain consistent canopy structure and greenness during the dry season. Nature 506, 221–224 (2014).
Wu, J. et al. Leaf development and demography explain photosynthetic seasonality in Amazon evergreen forests. Science 351, 972–976 (2016).
Guan, K. et al. Photosynthetic seasonality of global tropical forests constrained by hydroclimate. Nat. Geosci. 8, 284–289 (2015).
Konings, A. G., Williams, A. P. & Gentine, P. Sensitivity of grassland productivity to aridity controlled by stomatal and xylem regulation. Nat. Geosci. 7, 2193–2197 (2017).
Novick, K. A. et al. The increasing importance of atmospheric demand for ecosystem water and carbon fluxes. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 1023–1027 (2016).
Williams, A. P. Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 292–297 (2012).
Xu, L. et al. Satellite observation of tropical forest seasonality: spatial patterns of carbon exchange in Amazonia. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 084005 (2015).
Maeda, E. E., Kim, H., Aragão, L. E. O. C., Famiglietti, J. S. & Oki, T. Disruption of hydroecological equilibrium in southwest Amazon mediated by drought. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 7546–7553 (2015).
Rowland, L. et al. Death from drought in tropical forests is triggered by hydraulics not carbon starvation. Nature 528, 119–122 (2015).
Joiner, J. et al. Global monitoring of terrestrial chlorophyll fluorescence from moderate-spectral-resolution near-infrared satellite measurements: methodology, simulations, and application to GOME-2. Atmos. Meas. Tech. 6, 2803–2823 (2013).
Frankenberg, C. et al. New global observations of the terrestrial carbon cycle from GOSAT: patterns of plant fluorescence with gross primary productivity. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L7706 (2011).
Green, J. K. et al. Regionally strong feedbacks between the atmosphere and terrestrial biosphere. Nat. Geosci. 48, 410–422 (2017).
Simard, M., Pinto, N., Fisher, J. B. & Baccini, A. Mapping forest canopy height globally with spaceborne lidar. J. Geophys. Res. 116, G04021 (2011).
Huffman, G. J. et al. Global precipitation at one-degree daily resolution from multisatellite observations. J. Hydrometeorol. 2, 36–50 (2001).
Aumann, H. H. & Pagano, R. J. Atmospheric infrared sounder on the Earth observing system. Opt. Eng. 33, 776–784 (1994).
Chazdon, R. L. et al. Carbon sequestration potential of second-growth forest regeneration in the Latin American tropics. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 2, e1501639 (2016).
Avitabile, V. et al. An integrated pan-tropical biomass map using multiple reference datasets. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1406–1420 (2016).
Martinez-Vilalta, J., Poyatos, R., Aguadé, D., Retana, J. & Mencuccini, M. A. A new look at water transport regulation in plants. New Phytol. 204, 105–115 (2014).
Konings, A. G. & Gentine, P. Global variations in ecosystem‐scale isohydricity. Glob. Change Biol. 23, 891–905 (2017).
Domec, J.-C. & Johnson, D. M. Does homeostasis or disturbance of homeostasis in minimum leaf water potential explain the isohydric versus anisohydric behavior of Vitis vinifera L. cultivars? Tree Physiol. 32, 245–248 (2012).
Brodribb, T. J., Holbrook, N. M., Edwards, E. J. & Gutierrez, M. V. Relations between stomatal closure, leaf turgor and xylem vulnerability in eight tropical dry forest trees. Plant Cell Environ. 26, 443–450 (2003).
Martinez-Vilalta, J. & Garcia-Forner, N. Water potential regulation, stomatal behaviour and hydraulic transport under drought: deconstructing the iso/anisohydric concept. Plant Cell Environ. 40, 962–976 (2016).
Porcar-Castell, A. et al. Linking chlorophyll a fluorescence to photosynthesis for remote sensing applications: mechanisms and challenges. J. Exp. Bot. 65, 4065–4095 (2014).
Zhang, Y. et al. Consistency between sun-induced chlorophyll fluorescence and gross primary production of vegetation in North America. Remote Sens. Environ. 183, 154–169 (2016).
Parazoo, N. C. et al. Interpreting seasonal changes in the carbon balance of southern Amazonia using measurements of XCO2 and chlorophyll fluorescence from GOSAT. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 2829–2833 (2013).
Lee, J. E. et al. Forest productivity and water stress in Amazonia: observations from GOSAT chlorophyll fluorescence. Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20130171 (2013).
Anber, U., Gentine, P., Wang, S. & Sobel, A. H. Fog and rain in the Amazon. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 11473–11477 (2015).
Wielicki, B. et al. Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES): an Earth observing system experiment. BAMS 77, 853–868 (2000).
Meakem, V. et al. Role of tree size in moist tropical forest carbon cycling and water deficit responses. New Phytol. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.14633 (2017).
Malhi, Y. et al. Exploring the likelihood and mechanism of a climate-change-induced dieback of the Amazon rainforest. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 20610–20615 (2009).
Friedl, M. A. et al. MODIS Collection 5 global land cover: algorithm refinements and characterization of new datasets. Remote Sens. Environ. 114, 168–182 (2010).
Santoro, M. et al. Forest growing stock volume of the northern hemisphere: spatially explicit estimates for 2010 derived from Envisat ASAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 168, 316–334 (2015).
Baccini, A. et al. Estimated carbon dioxide emissions from tropical deforestation improved by carbon-density maps. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 182–185 (2012).
Koelemeijer, R. B. A., Stammes, P., Hovenier, J. W. & de Haan, J. F. A fast method for retrieval of cloud parameters using oxygen A band measurements from the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 3475–3490 (2001).
Stammes, P. et al. Effective cloud fractions from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument: theoretical framework and validation. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D05204–D05212 (2008).
Joiner, J. et al. The seasonal cycle of satellite chlorophyll fluorescence observations and its relationship to vegetation phenology and ecosystem atmosphere carbon exchange. Remote Sens. Env. 152, 375–391 (2014).
Joiner, J. et al. Filling-in of near-infrared solar lines by terrestrial fluorescence and other geophysical effects: simulations and space-based observations from SCIAMACHY and GOSAT. Atmos. Meas. Tech. 5, 809–829 (2012).
Feldpausch, T. R. et al. Height–diameter allometry of tropical forest trees. Biogeosciences 8, 1081–1106 (2011).
Medlyn, B. E. et al. Reconciling the optimal and empirical approaches to modelling stomatal conductance. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 2134–2144 (2011).
Xu, X., Medvigy, D., Powers, J. S., Becknell, J. M. & Guan, K. Diversity in plant hydraulic traits explains seasonal and inter-annual variations of vegetation dynamics in seasonally dry tropical forests. New Phytol. 212, 80–95 (2016).
Corey, A. & Brooks, R. Drainage characteristics of soils. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 39, 251–255 (1975).
Brooks, R. & Corey, A. Hydraulic properties of porous media Hydrology Paper 3 (Colorado State University, 1964).
Gleason, S. M. et al. Weak tradeoff between xylem safety and xylem-specific hydraulic efficiency across the world’s woody plant species. New Phytol. 209, 123–136 (2015).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Giardina, F., Konings, A.G., Kennedy, D. et al. Tall Amazonian forests are less sensitive to precipitation variability. Nature Geosci 11, 405–409 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0133-5
Plant, Cell & Environment (2019)
Development and evaluation of a simple hydrologically based model for terrestrial evapotranspiration simulations
Journal of Hydrology (2019)
Global Change Biology (2019)
Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences (2019)
The impact of the 2009/2010 drought on vegetation growth and terrestrial carbon balance in Southwest China
Agricultural and Forest Meteorology (2019)