Fellow Story

Dudney finds multiple thresholds for tree response to drought

Fellow(s): Joan Dudney

Abstract: Predicted increases in extreme droughts will likely cause major shifts in carbon sequestration and forest composition. Although growth declines during drought are widely documented, an increasing number of studies have reported both positive and negative responses to the same drought. These divergent growth patterns may reflect thresholds (i.e., nonlinear responses) promoted by changes in the dominant climatic constraints on tree growth. Here we tested whether stemwood growth exhibited linear or nonlinear responses to temperature and precipitation and whether stemwood growth thresholds co-occurred with multiple thresholds in source and sink processes that limit tree growth. We extracted 772 tree cores, 1398 needle length records, and 1075 stable isotope samples from 27 sites across whitebark pine's (Pinus albicaulis Engelm.) climatic niche in the Sierra Nevada. Our results indicated that a temperature threshold in stemwood growth occurred at 8.4°C (7.12–9.51°C; estimated using fall-spring maximum temperature). This threshold was significantly correlated with thresholds in foliar growth, as well as carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) stable isotope ratios, that emerged during drought. These co-occurring thresholds reflected the transition between energy- and water-limited tree growth (i.e., the E–W limitation threshold). This transition likely mediated carbon and nutrient cycling, as well as important differences in growth-defense trade-offs and drought adaptations. Furthermore, whitebark pine growing in energy-limited regions may continue to experience elevated growth in response to climate change. The positive effect of warming, however, may be offset by growth declines in water-limited regions, threatening the long-term sustainability of the recently listed whitebark pine species in the Sierra Nevada.

Citation: Dudney, J., Latimer, A. M., van Mantgem, P., Zald, H., Willing, C. E., Nesmith, J. C. B., Cribbs, J., & Milano, E. (2023). The energy–water limitation threshold explains divergent drought responses in tree growth, needle length, and stable isotope ratios. Global Change Biology, 00, 1– 15. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.16740