Skip to main content

Plants and Drought in a Changing Climate


Purpose of Review

Climate is changing in response to rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and it is commonly asserted that this will cause droughts to become more frequent and severe. However, different metrics of drought give diverging estimates of future impacts. I present a summary of the significant yet underappreciated influence that plant stomatal and growth responses to CO2 have on drought and highlight new insights into the impacts of drought on plants in a warmer world.

Recent Findings

Plants influence the water availability on land and thus reduce the duration and intensity of droughts under higher CO2 conditions. Plants are concurrently more vulnerable to mortality when droughts occur under hotter conditions.


The frequency and severity of drought in the future depends on the response of plants to a changing climate—ignoring plant responses leads to over-prediction of drought. Nonetheless, the impact of current frequencies of drought on plants could lead to higher mortality rates in the future as plants must withstand drought stress simultaneously with hotter temperatures.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    IPCC (2013) Summary for policymakers. Clim Chang 2013 Phys Sci Basis Contrib Work Gr I to Fifth Assess Rep Intergov Panel Clim Chang 33 .

  2. 2.

    Glickman (2011) Glossary of meteorology. Am Meteorol Soc 1:3624–3648.

  3. 3.

    Mckee TB, Doesken NJ, Kleist J (1993) The relationship of drought frequency and duration to time scales. AMS 8th Conf Appl Climatol 179–184 . doi: citeulike-article-id:10490403.

  4. 4.

    Palmer WC (1965) Meteorological drought. U.S. Weather Bur. Res. Pap. No. 45 58.

  5. 5.

    Alley WM. The Palmer Drought Severity Index: limitations and assumptions. J Clim Appl Meteorol. 1984;23:1100–9.<1100:TPDSIL>2.0.CO;2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Budyko MI, Miller DH (1974) Climate and life. Academic press New York.

  7. 7.

    Thornthwaite CW. An approach toward a rational classification of climate. Geogr Rev. 1948;38:55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Monteith JL. Evaporation and surface temperature. Q J R Meteorol Soc. 1981;107:1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Penman HL. Natural evaporation from open water, bare soil and grass. R Soc. 1948;193:120–45.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Sellers PJ, Bounoua L, Collatz GJ, et al (1996) Comparison of radiative and physiological effects of doubled atmospheric CO2 on climate. Science (80- ) 271:1402–1406.

  11. 11.

    Wells N, Goddard S, Hayes MJ. A self-calibrating Palmer Drought Severity Index. J Clim. 2004;17:2335–51.<2335:ASPDSI>2.0.CO;2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Swann ALS, Hoffman FM, Koven CD, Randerson JT. Plant responses to increasing CO 2 reduce estimates of climate impacts on drought severity. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2016;113:10019–24.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Stephenson N. Actual evapotranspiration and deficit: biologically meaningful correlates of vegetation distribution across spatial scales. J Biogeogr. 1998;25:855–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Seneviratne SI, Corti T, Davin EL, Hirschi M, Jaeger EB, Lehner I, et al. Investigating soil moisture-climate interactions in a changing climate: a review. Earth-Science Rev. 2010;99:125–61.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Clapp RB, Hornberger GM. Empirical equations for some soil hydraulic properties. Water Resour Res. 1978;14:601–4.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Cowan IR. Stomatal behaviour and environment. Adv Bot Res. 1977;4:117–228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Leakey ADB. Photosynthesis, productivity, and yield of maize are not affected by open-air elevation of CO2 concentration in the absence of drought. Plant Physiol. 2006;140:779–90.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Collins M, Knutti R, Arblaster J, et al (2013) IPCC WG1AR5 Chapter 12 Long-term climate change: projections, commitments and irreversibility. Clim. Chang. 2013 Phys. Sci. Basis. Contrib. Work. Gr. I to Fifth Assess. Rep. Intergov. Panel Clim. Chang. 1029–1136.

  19. 19.

    Held IM, Soden BJ. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J Clim. 2006;19:5686–99.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Greve P, Orlowsky B, Mueller B, Sheffield J, Reichstein M, Seneviratne SI. Global assessment of trends in wetting and drying over land. Nat Geosci. 2014;7:716–21.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Roderick ML, Sun F, Lim WH, Farquhar GD. A general framework for understanding the response of the water cycle to global warming over land and ocean. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci. 2014;18:1575–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Byrne MP, O’Gorman P a. The response of precipitation minus evapotranspiration to climate warming: why the “wet-get-wetter, dry-get-drier” scaling does not hold over land. J Clim. 2015;150904104833007:8078–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Greve P, Seneviratne SI. Assessment of future changes in water availability and aridity. Geophys Res Lett. 2015;42:5493–9.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Scheff J, Frierson DMW. Scaling potential evapotranspiration with greenhouse warming. J Clim. 2014;27:1539–58.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Dai A. Drought under global warming: a review. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Clim Chang. 2011;2:45–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Dai A. Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat Clim Chang. 2013;3:52–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Zhao T, Dai A. The magnitude and causes of global drought changes in the 21st century under a low-moderate emissions scenario. J Clim. 2015;28:4490–512.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Cook B, Smerdon J, Seager R, Coats S. Global warming and 21st century drying. Clim Dyn. 2014;43:2607–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sherwood S, Fu Q. Climate change. A drier future? Science. 2014; (80- ) 343:737–739 .

  30. 30.

    Fu Q, Feng S. Responses of terrestrial aridity to global warming. J Geophys Res Atmos. 2014;119:7863–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Scheff J, Frierson DMW. Terrestrial aridity and its response to greenhouse warming across CMIP5 climate models. J Clim. 2015;28:5583–600.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Berg A, Findell K, Lintner B, Giannini A, Seneviratne SI, van den Hurk B, et al. Land-atmosphere feedbacks amplify aridity increase over land under global warming. Nat Clim Chang. 2016;6:869–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Milly PCD, Dunne KA. Potential evapotranspiration and continental drying. Nat Clim Chang. 2016;6:946–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Feng S, Fu Q. Expansion of global drylands under a warming climate. Atmos Chem Phys. 2013;13:10081–94.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Huang J, Yu H, Guan X, Wang G, Guo R. Accelerated dryland expansion under climate change. Nat Clim Chang. 2016;6:166–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Lin L, Gettelman A, Feng S, Fu Q. Simulated climatology and evolution of aridity in the 21st century. J Geophys Res. 2015;120:5795–815.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Roderick ML, Greve P, Farquhar GD. On the assessment of aridity with changes in atmospheric CO2. Water Resour Res. 2015;51:5450–63.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Greve P, Roderick ML, Seneviratne SI. Simulated changes in aridity from the last glacial maximum to 4xCO2. Environ Res Lett. 2017;12:114021.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Dirmeyer PA, Jin Y, Singh B, Yan X. Trends in land–atmosphere interactions from CMIP5 simulations. J Hydrometeorol. 2013;14:829–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Cook BI, Ault TR, Smerdon JE. Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains. Sci Adv. 2015;1:e1400082.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Berg A, Sheffield J, Milly PCD. Divergent surface and total soil moisture projections under global warming. Geophys Res Lett. 2017;44:236–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Lemordant L, Gentine P, Stéfanon M, et al Modification of land-atmosphere interactions by CO2 effects: implications for summer dryness and heatwave amplitude. Geophys Res Lett. 2016; 2016GL069896 .

  43. 43.

    Farquhar GD, von Caemmerer S, Berry JA. Models of photosynthesis. Plant Physiol. 2001;125:42–5.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Collatz GJ, Ball JT, Grivet C, Berry JA. Physiological and environmental-regulation of stomatal conductance, photosynthesis and transpiration—a model that includes a laminar boundary-layer. Agric For Meteorol. 1991;54:107–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Medlyn BE, Duursma RA, Eamus D, et al. Reconciling the optimal and empirical approaches to modelling stomatal conductance. Glob Chang Biol. 2011;17:2134–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Ball JT, Woodrow IE, Berry JA. A model predicting stomatal conductance and its contribution to the control of photosynthesis under different environmental conditions. In: Progress in Photosynthesis Research. 1987; pp 221–224.

  47. 47.

    Leuning R. A critical appraisal of a combined stomatal-photosynthesis model for C3 plants. Plant Cell Environ. 1995;18:339–55.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    van der Sleen P, Groenendijk P, Vlam M, Anten NPR, Boom A, Bongers F, et al. No growth stimulation of tropical trees by 150 years of CO2 fertilization but water-use efficiency increased. Nat Geosci. 2014;8:24–8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Peñuelas J, Canadell JG, Ogaya R. Increased water-use efficiency during the 20th century did not translate into enhanced tree growth. Glob Ecol Biogeogr. 2011;20:597–608.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Frank DC, Poulter B, Saurer M, Esper J, Huntingford C, Helle G, et al. Water-use efficiency and transpiration across European forests during the Anthropocene. Nat Clim Chang. 2015;5:579–83.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Keeling RF, Graven HD, Welp LR, Resplandy L, Bi J, Piper SC, et al. Atmospheric evidence for a global secular increase in carbon isotopic discrimination of land photosynthesis. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2017;201619240:10361–6.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Kauwe MG, Medlyn BE, Zaehle S, et al. Forest water use and water use efficiency at elevated CO2: a model-data intercomparison at two contrasting temperate forest FACE sites. Glob Chang Biol. 2013;19:1759–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Wullschleger SD, Gunderson CA, Hanson PJ, Wilson KB, Norby RJ. Sensitivity of stomatal and canopy conductance to elevated CO2 concentration—interacting variables and perspectives of scale. New Phytol. 2002;153:485–96.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Schäfer K, Oren R, Lai C-T, Katul GG. Hydrologic balance in an intact temperate forest ecosystem under ambient and elevated atmospheric CO<sub>2<\sub> concentration. Glob Chang Biol. 2002;8:895–911.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Ainsworth EA, Long SP. What have we learned from 15 years of free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE)? A meta-analytic review of the responses of photosynthesis, canopy properties and plant production to rising CO2. New Phytol. 2005;165:351–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Mahowald N, Lo F, Zheng Y, Harrison L, Funk C, Lombardozzi D, et al. Projections of leaf area index in earth system models. Earth Syst Dynam. 2016;7:211–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Skinner CB, Poulsen CJ, Chadwick R, Diffenbaugh NS, Fiorella RP. The role of plant CO2 physiological forcing in shaping future daily-scale precipitation. J Clim. 2017;30:2319–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Mankin JS, Smerdon JE, Cook BI, Williams AP, Seager R. The curious case of Projected Twenty-First-Century Drying but Greening in the American West. J Clim. 2017;30:8689–710.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Wieder WR, Cleveland CC, Smith WK, Todd-Brown K. Future productivity and carbon storage limited by terrestrial nutrient availability. Nat Geosci Adv On. 2015

  60. 60.

    Verheijen LM, Aerts R, Brovkin V, Cavender-Bares J, Cornelissen JHC, Kattge J, et al. Inclusion of ecologically based trait variation in plant functional types reduces the projected land carbon sink in an earth system model. Glob Chang Biol. 2015;21:3074–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Williams AP, Allen CD, Macalady AK, et al. Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality. Nat Clim Chang. 2013;3:292–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    O’Gorman PA, Muller CJ. How closely do changes in surface and column water vapor follow Clausius-Clapeyron scaling in climate change simulations? Environ Res Lett. 2010;5

  63. 63.

    Fasullo JT. Robust land–ocean contrasts in energy and water cycle feedbacks. J Clim. 2010;23:4677–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Joshi MM, Gregory JM, Webb MJ, Sexton DMH, Johns TC. Mechanisms for the land/sea warming contrast exhibited by simulations of climate change. Clim Dyn. 2008;30:455–65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Breshears DD, Adams HD, Eamus D, McDowell NG, Law DJ, Will RE, et al. The critical amplifying role of increasing atmospheric moisture demand on tree mortality and associated regional die-off. Front Plant Sci. 2013;4:266.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Teskey R, Wertin T, Bauweraerts I, et al. Responses of tree species to heat waves and extreme heat events. Plant Cell Environ. 2015;38:1699–712.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Matusick G, Ruthrof KX, Brouwers NC, Dell B, Hardy GSJ. Sudden forest canopy collapse corresponding with extreme drought and heat in a mediterranean-type eucalypt forest in southwestern Australia. Eur J For Res. 2013;132:497–510.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Allen CD, Breshears DD, McDowell NG. On underestimation of global vulnerability to tree mortality and forest die-off from hotter drought in the Anthropocene. Ecosphere. 2015;6:art129.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Liu Y, Parolari AJ, Kumar M, Huang CW, Katul GG, Porporato A. Increasing atmospheric humidity and CO 2 concentration alleviate forest mortality risk. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2017;201704811:9918–23.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Novick KA, Ficklin DL, Stoy PC, et al. The increasing importance of atmospheric demand for ecosystem water and carbon fluxes. Nat Clim Chang Adv On: 2016

  71. 71.

    Sulman BN, Roman DT, Yi K, Wang L, Phillips RP, Novick KA. High atmospheric demand for water can limit forest carbon uptake and transpiration as severely as dry soil. Geophys Res Lett. 2016;43:9686–95.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Ficklin DL, Novick KA. Historic and projected changes in vapor pressure deficit suggest a continental-scale drying of the United States atmosphere. J Geophys Res. 2017;122:2061–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Duan H, Duursma RA, Huang G, et al. Elevated CO_2 does not ameliorate the negative effects of elevated temperature on drought-induced mortality in Eucalyptus radiata seedlings. Plant Cell Environ. 2014;37:1598–613.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Breshears DD, Cobb NS, Rich PM, Price KP, Allen CD, Balice RG, et al. Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005;102:15144–8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Adams HD, Guardiola-Claramonte M, Barron-Gafford GA, Villegas JC, Breshears DD, Zou CB, et al. Temperature sensitivity of drought-induced tree mortality portends increased regional die-off under global-change-type drought. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2009;106:7063–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. 76.

    Adams HD, Barron-Gafford GA, Minor RL, Gardea AA, Bentley LP, Law DJ, et al. Temperature response surfaces for mortality risk of tree species with future drought. Environ Res Lett. 2017;12:115014.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. 77.

    Eamus D, Boulain N, Cleverly J, Breshears DD. Global change-type drought-induced tree mortality: vapor pressure deficit is more important than temperature per se in causing decline in tree health. Ecol Evol. 2013;3:2711–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. 78.

    Brodribb TJ, McAdam S a M. Evolution in the smallest valves (stomata) guides even the biggest trees. Tree Physiol. 2015;35:451–2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Choat B, Jansen S, Brodribb TJ, et al. Global convergence in the vulnerability of forests to drought. Nature. 2012; 491:752+ .

  80. 80.

    McDowell N, Pockman WT, Allen CD, Breshears DD, Cobb N, Kolb T, et al. Mechanisms of plant survival and mortality during drought: why do some plants survive while others succumb to drought? New Phytol. 2008;178:719–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. 81.

    Adams HD, Zeppel MJB, Anderegg WRL, Hartmann H, Landhäusser SM, Tissue DT, et al. A multi-species synthesis of physiological mechanisms in drought-induced tree mortality. Nat Ecol Evol. 2017;1:1285–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    McDowell NG, Beerling DJ, Breshears DD, et al. The interdependence of mechanisms underlying climate-driven vegetation mortality. Trends Ecol Evol. 2011;26:523–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. 83.

    Villegas JC, Law DJ, Stark SC, Minor DM, Breshears DD, Saleska SR, et al. Prototype campaign assessment of disturbance-induced tree loss effects on surface properties for atmospheric modeling. Ecosphere. 2017;8

  84. 84.

    Laguë MM, Swann ALS. Progressive midlatitude afforestation: impacts on clouds, global energy transport, and precipitation. J Clim. 2016;29:5561–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. 85.

    Swann ALS, Fung IY, Chiang JCH. Mid-latitude afforestation shifts general circulation and tropical precipitation. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2012;109:712–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. 86.

    Garcia ES, Swann ALS, Villegas JC, Breshears DD, Law DJ, Saleska SR, et al. Synergistic ecoclimate teleconnections from forest loss in different regions structure global ecological responses. PLoS One. 2016;11:e0165042.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Stark SC, Leitold V, Wu JL, Hunter MO, de Castilho CV, Costa FR, et al. Amazon forest carbon dynamics predicted by profiles of canopy leaf area and light environment. Ecol Lett. 2012;15:1406–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. 88.

    Swann ALS, Laguë MM, Garcia ES, et al. Continental-scale consequences of tree die-offs in North America: identifying where forest loss matters most. Environ Res Lett in press. 2018

  89. 89.

    Bonan GB, Doney SC. Climate, ecosystems, and planetary futures: The challenge to predict life in Earth system models. Science. 2018;359(6375):eaam8328.

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Abigail L. S. Swann.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

There are no human subjects involved in this research.

Additional information

This article is part of the Topical Collection on Climate Change and Drought

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Swann, A.L.S. Plants and Drought in a Changing Climate. Curr Clim Change Rep 4, 192–201 (2018).

Download citation


  • Drought
  • Global warming
  • Climate change
  • Hydrological impact
  • Forest mortality
  • Water use efficiency