Article

Plant Ecology

, Volume 212, Issue 4, pp 663-673

Droughts, hydraulic redistribution, and their impact on vegetation composition in the Amazon forest

  • Guiling WangAffiliated withDepartment of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of ConnecticutCenter for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, University of Connecticut Email author 
  • , Clement AloAffiliated withDepartment of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Connecticut
  • , Rui MeiAffiliated withDepartment of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Connecticut
  • , Shanshan SunAffiliated withDepartment of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Connecticut

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Abstract

Hydraulic redistribution (HR), the nocturnal transport of moisture by plant roots from wetter to drier portions of the root zone, in general can buffer plants against seasonal water deficits. However, its role in longer droughts and its long-term ecological impact are not well understood. Based on numerical model experiments for the Amazon forest, this modeling study indicates that the impact of HR on plant growth differs between droughts of different time scales. While HR increases transpiration and plant growth during regular dry seasons, it reduces dry season transpiration and net primary productivity (NPP) under extreme droughts such as those during El Niño years in the Amazon forest. This occurs because, in places where soil water storage is not able to sustain the ecosystem through the dry season, the HR-induced acceleration of moisture depletion in the early stage of the dry season reduces water availability for the rest of the dry season and causes soil moisture to reach the wilting point earlier. This gets exacerbated during extreme droughts, which jeopardizes the growth of trees that are not in dry season dormancy, i.e., evergreen trees. As a result, the combination of drought and HR increases the percentage of drought deciduous trees at the expense of evergreen trees, and the fractional coverage of forest canopy is characterized by sudden drops following extreme droughts and slow recovery afterwards. The shift of the tropical forest towards more drought deciduous trees as a result of the combined effects of extreme drought and HR has important implications for how vegetation will respond to future climate changes.

Keywords

Hydraulic redistribution Vegetation distribution Drought Plant–water relations