, Volume 175, Issue 1, pp 11-23
Date: 07 Jan 2014

Loss of whole-tree hydraulic conductance during severe drought and multi-year forest die-off

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Abstract

Understanding the pathways through which drought stress kills woody vegetation can improve projections of the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and carbon-cycle feedbacks. Continuous in situ measurements of whole trees during drought and as trees die hold promise to illuminate physiological pathways but are relatively rare. We monitored leaf characteristics, water use efficiency, water potentials, branch hydraulic conductivity, soil moisture, meteorological variables, and sap flux on mature healthy and sudden aspen decline-affected (SAD) trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) ramets over two growing seasons, including a severe summer drought. We calculated daily estimates of whole-ramet hydraulic conductance and modeled whole-ramet assimilation. Healthy ramets experienced rapid declines of whole-ramet conductance during the severe drought, providing an analog for what likely occurred during the previous drought that induced SAD. Even in wetter periods, SAD-affected ramets exhibited fivefold lower whole-ramet hydraulic conductance and sevenfold lower assimilation than counterpart healthy ramets, mediated by changes in leaf area, water use efficiency, and embolism. Extant differences between healthy and SAD ramets reveal that ongoing multi-year forest die-off is primarily driven by loss of whole-ramet hydraulic capability, which in turn limits assimilation capacity. Branch-level measurements largely captured whole-plant hydraulic limitations during drought and mortality, but whole-plant measurements revealed a potential role of other losses in the hydraulic continuum. Our results highlight the importance of a whole-tree perspective in assessing physiological pathways to tree mortality and indicate that the effects of mortality on these forests’ assimilation and productivity are larger than expected based on canopy leaf area differences.

Communicated by Ram Oren.