When a Tree Dies in the Forest: Scaling Climate-Driven Tree Mortality to Ecosystem Water and Carbon Fluxes
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Drought- and heat-driven tree mortality, along with associated insect outbreaks, have been observed globally in recent decades and are expected to increase in future climates. Despite its potential to profoundly alter ecosystem carbon and water cycles, how tree mortality scales up to ecosystem functions and fluxes is uncertain. We describe a framework for this scaling where the effects of mortality are a function of the mortality attributes, such as spatial clustering and functional role of the trees killed, and ecosystem properties, such as productivity and diversity. We draw upon remote-sensing data and ecosystem flux data to illustrate this framework and place climate-driven tree mortality in the context of other major disturbances. We find that emerging evidence suggests that climate-driven tree mortality impacts may be relatively small and recovery times are remarkably fast (~4 years for net ecosystem production). We review the key processes in ecosystem models necessary to simulate the effects of mortality on ecosystem fluxes and highlight key research gaps in modeling. Overall, our results highlight the key axes of variation needed for better monitoring and modeling of the impacts of tree mortality and provide a foundation for including climate-driven tree mortality in a disturbance framework.