Complex aspen forest carbon and root dynamics during drought

Research paper by William R. L. Anderegg

Indexed on: 28 Feb '12Published on: 28 Feb '12Published in: Climatic change


Drought-induced vegetation mortality has been documented on every vegetated continent in recent decades and constitutes a major uncertainty in climate change impacts on terrestrial ecosystems and carbon cycle feedbacks. While recent research has focused on specific failure mechanisms during drought-induced forest die-off, a broader understanding of the physiology of trees under drought, especially changes in growth and carbon allocation, is needed for determining the sensitivity of forests to drought and interacting mechanisms during forest mortality. I present here multi-tissue and high-resolution temporal dynamics of tree carbon resources during moderate experimental and natural drought in trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) forests, a major forest type in western North America that recently experienced widespread drought-induced die-off. Drought led to substantial declines in inferred carbon uptake. Tree carbohydrate concentrations, however, largely increased in concert with substantial decreases in growth and severe declines in root biomass. These findings highlight that growth declines, especially in fine roots which are important to water uptake, and increased carbon allocation to root non-structural carbohydrates are key responses to drought in aspen and could play an important role in widespread die-off. They suggest multi-year consequences of drought and carbon-hydraulic interconnections. They underscore the need for a more integrated multi-tissue, multi-process, and multi-year perspective of climate-induced forest mortality.