Stable isotopes of tree rings reveal seasonal-to-decadal patterns during the emergence of a megadrought in the Southwestern US

Paul Szejner, Soumaya Belmecheri, Flurin Babst, William E. Wright, David C. Frank, Jia Hu, Russell K. Monson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Recent evidence has revealed the emergence of a megadrought in southwestern North America since 2000. Megadroughts extend for at least 2 decades, making it challenging to identify such events until they are well established. Here, we examined tree-ring growth and stable isotope ratios in Pinus ponderosa at its driest niche edge to investigate whether trees growing near their aridity limit were sensitive to the megadrought climatic pre-conditions, and were capable of informing predictive efforts. During the decade before the megadrought, trees in four populations revealed increases in the cellulose δ13C content of earlywood, latewood, and false latewood, which, based on past studies are correlated with increased intrinsic water-use efficiency. However, radial growth and cellulose δ18O were not sensitive to pre-megadrought conditions. During the 2 decades preceding the megadrought, at all four sites, the changes in δ13C were caused by the high sensitivity of needle carbon and water exchange to drought trends in key winter months, and for three of the four sites during crucial summer months. Such pre-megadrought physiological sensitivity appears to be unique for trees near their arid range limit, as similar patterns were not observed in trees in ten reference sites located along a latitudinal gradient in the same megadrought domain, despite similar drying trends. Our results reveal the utility of tree-ring δ13C to reconstruct spatiotemporal patterns during the organizational phase of a megadrought, demonstrating that trees near the arid boundaries of a species’ distribution might be useful in the early detection of long-lasting droughts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1079-1094
Number of pages16
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Hot drought
  • Intrinsic water-use efficiency
  • Multidecadal
  • Vapor pressure deficit
  • Warming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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