Recent increases in drought frequency cause observed multi-year drought legacies in the tree rings of semi-arid forests

Paul Szejner, Soumaya Belmecheri, James R. Ehleringer, Russell K. Monson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Recent analyses on the length of drought recovery in forests have shown multi-year legacies, particularly in semi-arid, coniferous ecosystems. Such legacies are usually attributed to ecophysiological memory, although drought frequency itself, and its effect on overlapping recovery times, could also contribute. Here, we describe a multi-decadal study of drought legacies using tree-ring carbon-isotope ratios (δ13C) and ring-width index (RWI) in Pinus ponderosa at 13 montane sites traversing a winter–summer precipitation gradient in the Southwestern U.S. Sites and trees were selected to avoid collection biases that exist in archived tree-ring databanks. The spatial hydroclimate gradient and winter–summer seasonal patterns were well predicted by seasonal and inter-annual correlations between δ13C and atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD). Using VPD, we found that the probability of extreme drought has increased up to 70% in this region during the past two decades. When the recent increase in drought frequency was not considered, multi-year legacies in both δ13C and RWI were observed at most sites. When the increase in drought frequency was detrended from tree-ring chronologies, some sites exhibited short legacies (1–2 years) in both δ13C and RWI, and there was a sight trend for longer legacies in RWI. However, when considered broadly across the region and multiple decades, no significant legacies were observed, which contrasts with past studies. Our results reveal that a contribution to observed multi-year legacies is related to shifts in the climate system itself, an exogenous factor, that must be considered along with physiological memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-259
Number of pages19
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Climate change
  • Hot droughts
  • Modeling
  • Pulse–press disturbance
  • Stress memory
  • Stress recovery
  • Vapor pressure deficit
  • Xylem vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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