skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 10:00 PM ET on Friday, December 8 until 2:00 AM ET on Saturday, December 9 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: Global field observations of tree die-off reveal hotter-drought fingerprint for Earth’s forests

Earth’s forests face grave challenges in the Anthropocene, including hotter droughts increasingly associated with widespread forest die-off events. But despite the vital importance of forests to global ecosystem services, their fates in a warming world remain highly uncertain. Lacking is quantitative determination of commonality in climate anomalies associated with pulses of tree mortality—from published, field-documented mortality events—required for understanding the role of extreme climate events in overall global tree die-off patterns. Here we established a geo-referenced global database documenting climate-induced mortality events spanning all tree-supporting biomes and continents, from 154 peer-reviewed studies since 1970. Our analysis quantifies a global “hotter-drought fingerprint” from these tree-mortality sites—effectively a hotter and drier climate signal for tree mortality—across 675 locations encompassing 1,303 plots. Frequency of these observed mortality-year climate conditions strongly increases nonlinearly under projected warming. Our database also provides initial footing for further community-developed, quantitative, ground-based monitoring of global tree mortality.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Nature Publishing Group
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Tree die-off, driven by extreme drought and exacerbated by a warming climate, is occurring rapidly across every wooded continent—threatening carbon sinks and other ecosystem services provided by forests and woodlands. Forecasting the spatial patterns of tree die-off in response to drought is a priority for the management and conservation of forested ecosystems under projected future hotter and drier climates. Several thresholds derived from drought-metrics have been proposed to predict mortality ofPinus edulis,a model tree species in many studies of drought-induced tree die-off. To improve future capacity to forecast tree mortality, we used a severe drought as a natural experiment. We compared the ability of existing mortality thresholds derived from four drought metrics (the Forest Drought Severity Index (FDSI), the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index, and raw values of precipitation (PPT) and vapor pressure deficit, calculated using 4 km PRISM data) to predict areas ofP. edulisdie-off following an extreme drought in 2018 across the southwestern US. Using aerial detection surveys of tree mortality in combination with gridded climate data, we calculated the agreement between these four proposed thresholds and the presence and absence of regional-scale tree die-off using sensitivity, specificity, and the area under the curve (AUC). Overall, existing mortality thresholds tended to over predict the spatial extent of tree die-off across the landscape, yet some retain moderate skill in discriminating between areas that experienced and did not experience tree die-off. The simple PPT threshold had the highest AUC score (71%) as well as fair sensitivity and specificity, but the FDSI had the greatest sensitivity to die-off (85.9%). We highlight that empirically derived climate thresholds may be useful forecasting tools to identify vulnerable areas to drought induced die-off, allowing for targeted responses to future droughts and improved management of at-risk areas.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Climate change‐triggered forest die‐off is an increasing threat to global forests and carbon sequestration but remains extremely challenging to predict. Tree growth resilience metrics have been proposed as measurable proxies of tree susceptibility to mortality. However, it remains unclear whether tree growth resilience can improve predictions of stand‐level mortality. Here, we use an extensive tree‐ring dataset collected at ~3000 permanent forest inventory plots, spanning 13 dominant species across the US Mountain West, where forests have experienced strong drought and extensive die‐off has been observed in the past two decades, to test the hypothesis that tree growth resilience to drought can explain and improve predictions of observed stand‐level mortality. We found substantial increases in growth variability and temporal autocorrelation as well declining drought resistance and resilience for a number of species over the second half of the 20th century. Declining resilience and low tree growth were strongly associated with cross‐ and within‐species patterns of mortality. Resilience metrics had similar explicative power compared to climate and stand structure, but the covariance structure among predictors implied that the effect of tree resilience on mortality could partially be explained by stand and climate variables. We conclude that tree growth resilience offers highly valuable insights on tree physiology by integrating the effect of stressors on forest mortality but may have only moderate potential to improve large‐scale projections of forest die‐off under climate change.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Warming temperatures and rising moisture deficits are expected to increase the rates of background tree mortality–low amounts of tree mortality (~0.5%–2% year−1), characterizing the forest demographic processes in the absence of abrupt, coarse‐scale disturbance events (e.g. fire). When compounded over multiple decades and large areas, even minor increases in background tree mortality (e.g. <0.5% year−1) can cause changes to forest communities and carbon storage potential that are comparable to or greater than those caused by disturbances.

    We examine how temporal variability in rates of background tree mortality for four subalpine conifers reflects variability in climate and climate teleconnections using observations of tree mortality from 1982 to 2019 at Niwot Ridge, Colorado, USA. Individually marked trees (initial population 5,043) in 13 permanent plots—located across a range of site conditions, stand ages and species compositions—were censused for new mortality nine times over 37 years.

    Background tree mortality was primarily attributed to stress from unfavourable climate and competition (71.2%) and bark beetle activity (23.3%), whereas few trees died from wind (5.3%) and wildlife impacts (0.2%). Mean annualized tree mortality attributed to tree stress and bark beetles more than tripled across all stands between initial censuses (0.26% year−1, 1982–1993/1994) and recent censuses (0.82% year−1, 2008–2019). Higher rates of tree mortality were related to warmer maximum summer temperatures, greater summer moisture deficits, and negative anomalies in ENSO (La Niña), with greater effects of drought in some subpopulations (tree size, age and species). For example, in older stands (>250 years), larger and older trees were more likely to die than smaller and younger trees. Differences in tree mortality rates and sensitivity to climate among subpopulations that varied by stand type may lead to unexpected shifts in stand composition and structure.

    Synthesis. A strong relationship between higher rates of tree mortality and warmer, drier summer climate conditions implies that climate warming will continue to increase background mortality rates in subalpine forests. Combined with increases in disturbances and declining frequency of moist‐cool years suitable for seedling establishment, increasing rates of tree mortality have the potential to drive declines in subalpine tree populations.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Climate change is expected to increase drought intensity and frequency, which are commonly predicted will threaten the survival of forests. Most forest die‐off projections assume that recent tree mortality will not alter die‐off severity during subsequent droughts. We tested this assumption by comparing die‐off in semi‐arid conifer forest stands in California that were exposed to a single drought in 2012–2015 (“2ndDrought Only”) with forest stands that experienced drought in both 1999–2002 and 2012–2015 (“Both Droughts”). We quantified die‐off severity as a reduction in the satellite observed Normalized Difference Moisture Index, and cumulative moisture deficit as negative 4‐year Precipitation minus Evapotranspiration (4‐year Pr‐ET overdraft). Here we show that recent tree morality reduces die‐off severity in semi‐arid conifer forests exposed to subsequent drought. Stands in the2ndDrought Onlysample experienced severe die‐off associated with extreme 4‐year Pr‐ET overdraft in 2012–2015. Stands in theBoth Droughtssample experienced severe die‐off and 4‐year Pr‐ET overdraft in 1999–2002, but comparatively little 2012–2015 die‐off despite continued 4‐year Pr‐ET overdraft. We interpret this as a dampening effect, where prior tree mortality reduces forest die‐off severity during subsequent drought exposure. As forests continue to experience disturbances linked to climate change, dampening effects will impose a transient, and perhaps long‐term, constraint on the impact of repeated drought.

    more » « less
  5. null (Ed.)
    Drought and warming increasingly are causing widespread tree die-offs and extreme wildfires. Forest managers are struggling to improve anticipatory forest management practices given more frequent, extensive, and severe wildfire and tree die-off events triggered by “hotter drought”—drought under warmer than historical conditions. Of even greater concern is the increasing probability of multi-year droughts, or “megadroughts”—persistent droughts that span years to decades, and that under a still-warming climate, will also be hotter than historical norms. Megadroughts under warmer temperatures are disconcerting because of their potential to trigger more severe forest die-off, fire cycles, pathogens, and insect outbreaks. In this Perspective, we identify potential anticipatory and/or concurrent options for non-timber forest management actions under megadrought, which by necessity are focused more at finer spatial scales such as the stand level using higher-intensity management. These management actions build on silvicultural practices focused on growth and yield (but not harvest). Current management options that can be focused at finer scales include key silvicultural practices: selective thinning; use of carefully selected forward-thinking seed mixes; site contouring; vegetation and pest management; soil erosion control; and fire management. For the extreme challenges posed by megadroughts, management will necessarily focus even more on finer-scale, higher-intensity actions for priority locations such as fostering stand refugia; assisted stand recovery via soil amendments; enhanced root development; deep soil water retention; and shallow water impoundments. Drought-induced forest die-off from megadrought likely will lead to fundamental changes in the structure, function, and composition of forest stands and the ecosystem services they provide. 
    more » « less