Temperature response surfaces for mortality risk of tree species with future drought

Henry D. Adams, Greg A. Barron-Gafford, Rebecca L. Minor, Alfonso A. Gardea, Lisa Patrick Bentley, Darin J. Law, David D. Breshears, Nate G. McDowell, Travis E. Huxman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Widespread, high levels of tree mortality, termed forest die-off, associated with drought and rising temperatures, are disrupting forests worldwide. Drought will likely become more frequent with climate change, but even without more frequent drought, higher temperatures can exacerbate tree water stress. The temperature sensitivity of drought-induced mortality of tree species has been evaluated experimentally for only single-step changes in temperature (ambient compared to ambient + increase) rather than as a response surface (multiple levels of temperature increase), which constrains our ability to relate changes in the driver with the biological response. Here we show that time-to-mortality during drought for seedlings of two western United States tree species, Pinus edulis (Engelm.) and Pinus ponderosa (Douglas ex C. Lawson), declined in continuous proportion with increasing temperature spanning a 7.7 °C increase. Although P. edulis outlived P. ponderosa at all temperatures, both species had similar relative declines in time-to-mortality as temperature increased (5.2% per °C for P. edulis; 5.8% per °C for P. ponderosa). When combined with the non-linear frequency distribution of drought duration - many more short droughts than long droughts - these findings point to a progressive increase in mortality events with global change due to warming alone and independent of additional changes in future drought frequency distributions. As such, dire future forest recruitment patterns are projected assuming the calculated 7-9 seedling mortality events per species by 2100 under business-as-usual warming occur, congruent with additional vulnerability predicted for adult trees from stressors like pathogens and pests. Our progressive projection for increased mortality events was driven primarily by the non-linear shape of the drought duration frequency distribution, a common climate feature of drought-affected regions. These results illustrate profound benefits for reducing emissions of carbon to the atmosphere from anthropogenic sources and slowing warming as rapidly as possible to maximize forest persistence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115014
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 17 2017


  • Pinus edulis
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • climate change ecology
  • drought
  • temperature
  • tree die-off
  • tree mortality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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