Note: When clicking on a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) number, you will be taken to an external site maintained by the publisher.
Some full text articles may not yet be available without a charge during the embargo (administrative interval).
What is a DOI Number?
Some links on this page may take you to non-federal websites. Their policies may differ from this site.
Lightning is an important agent of plant mortality and disturbance in forests. Lightning‐caused disturbance is highly variable in terms of its area of effect and disturbance severity (i.e. tree damage and death), but we do not know how this variation is influenced by forest structure and plant composition.
We used a novel lightning detection system to quantify how lianas influenced the severity and spatial extent (i.e. area) of lightning disturbance using 78 lightning strikes in central Panama.
The local density of lianas (measured as liana basal area) was positively associated with the number of trees killed and damaged by lightning, and patterns of plant damage indicated that this occurred because lianas facilitated more electrical connections from large to small trees. Liana presence, however, did not increase the area of the disturbance. Thus, lianas increased the severity of lightning disturbance by facilitating damage to additional trees without influencing the footprint of the disturbance.
These findings indicate that lianas spread electricity to damage and kill understory trees that otherwise would survive a strike. As liana abundance increases in tropical forests, their negative effects on tree survival with respect to the severity of lightning‐related tree damage and death are likely to increase.Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 23, 2024
The contributions of lightning to biomass turnover, gap formation and plant mortality in a tropical forest
Lightning is a common source of disturbance, but its ecological effects in tropical forests are largely undescribed. Here we quantify the contributions of lightning strikes to forest turnover and plant mortality in a lowland Panamanian forest using a real‐time lightning monitoring system. We examined 2,195 lightning‐damaged trees distributed among 93 different strikes. None exhibited scars or fires. On average, each strike disturbed 451 m2(95% CI: 365–545 m2), created a canopy gap of 304 m2(95% CI 198–454 m2), and caused 7.36 Mg of woody biomass turnover (CI: 5.36–9.65 Mg). Cumulatively, we estimate that lightning strikes in this forest create canopy gaps equaling 0.39% of forest canopy area, representing 20.1% of annual gap area formation, and are responsible for 16.1% of total woody biomass turnover. Trees, lianas, herbaceous climbers and epiphytes were killed by lightning at rates 8–29 times greater than their baseline mortality rates in undamaged control sites. The likelihood of lightning‐caused death was higher for trees, lianas, and herbaceous climbers than for epiphytes, and high liana mortality suggests that lightning is an important driver of liana turnover. These results indicate that lightning influences gap dynamics, plant community composition and carbon storage capacity in some tropical forests.
Lightning is a major agent of disturbance, but its ecological effects in the tropics are unquantified. Here we used ground and satellite sensors to quantify the geography of lightning strikes in terrestrial tropical ecosystems, and to evaluate whether spatial variation in lightning frequency is associated with variation in tropical forest structure and dynamics. Between 2013 and 2018, tropical terrestrial ecosystems received an average of 100.4 million lightning strikes per year, and the frequency of strikes was spatially autocorrelated at local‐to‐continental scales. Lightning strikes were more frequent in forests, savannas, and urban areas than in grasslands, shrublands, and croplands. Higher lightning frequency was positively associated with woody biomass turnover and negatively associated with aboveground biomass and the density of large trees (trees/ha) in forests across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Extrapolating from the only tropical forest study that comprehensively assessed tree damage and mortality from lightning strikes, we estimate that lightning directly damages c. 832 million trees in tropical forests annually, of which c. 194 million die. The similarly high lightning frequency in tropical savannas suggests that lightning also influences savanna tree mortality rates and ecosystem processes. These patterns indicate that lightning‐caused disturbance plays a major and largely unappreciated rolemore »
Tree death due to lightning influences tropical forest carbon cycling and tree community dynamics. However, the distribution of lightning damage among trees in forests remains poorly understood.
We developed models to predict direct and secondary lightning damage to trees based on tree size, crown exposure and local forest structure. We parameterized these models using data on the locations of lightning strikes and censuses of tree damage in strike zones, combined with drone‐based maps of tree crowns and censuses of all trees within a 50‐ha forest dynamics plot on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.
The likelihood of a direct strike to a tree increased with larger exposed crown area and higher relative canopy position (emergent > canopy >>> subcanopy), whereas the likelihood of secondary lightning damage increased with tree diameter and proximity to neighbouring trees. The predicted frequency of lightning damage in this mature forest was greater for tree species with larger average diameters.
These patterns suggest that lightning influences forest structure and the global carbon budget by non‐randomly damaging large trees. Moreover, these models provide a framework for investigating the ecological and evolutionary consequences of lightning disturbance in tropical forests.
Synthesis. Our findings indicate that the distribution of lightning damage is stochastic at largemore »
The mortality rates of large trees are critical to determining carbon stocks in tropical forests, but the mechanisms of tropical tree mortality remain poorly understood. Lightning strikes thousands of tropical trees every day, but is commonly assumed to be a minor agent of tree mortality in most tropical forests.
We use the first systematic quantification of lightning‐caused mortality to show that lightning is a major cause of death for the largest trees in an old‐growth lowland forest in Panama. A novel lightning strike location system together with field surveys of strike sites revealed that, on average, each strike directly kills 3.5 trees (> 10 cm diameter) and damages 11.4 more.
Given lightning frequency data from the Earth Networks Total Lightning Network and historical total tree mortality rates for this site, we conclude that lightning accounts for 40.5% of the mortality of large trees (> 60 cm diameter) in the short term and probably contributes to an additional 9.0% of large tree deaths over the long term.
Any changes in cloud‐to‐ground lightning frequency due to climatic change will alter tree mortality rates; projected 25–50% increases in lightning frequency would increase large tree mortality rates in this forest by 9–18%. The results of this study indicate thatmore »