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  1. Abstract

    The response of tropical ecosystems to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) remains a critical uncertainty in projections of future climate. Here, we investigate how leaf trait plasticity in response to elevated CO2alters projections of tropical forest competitive dynamics and functioning. We use vegetation demographic model simulations to quantify how plasticity in leaf mass per area and leaf carbon to nitrogen ratio alter the responses of carbon uptake, evapotranspiration, and competitive ability to a doubling of CO2in a tropical forest. Observationally constrained leaf trait plasticity in response to CO2fertilization reduces the degree to which tropical tree carbon uptake is affected by a doubling of CO2(up to −14.7% as compared to a case with no plasticity; 95% confidence interval [CI95%] −14.4 to −15.0). It also diminishes evapotranspiration (up to −7.0%, CI95%−6.4 to −7.7), and lowers competitive ability in comparison to a tree with no plasticity. Consideration of leaf trait plasticity to elevated CO2lowers tropical ecosystem carbon uptake and evapotranspirative cooling in the absence of changes in plant‐type abundance. However, “plastic” responses to high CO2which maintain higher levels of plant productivity, many of which fall outside of the observed range of response, are potentially more competitively advantageous, thus, including changes in plant typemore »abundance may mitigate these decreases in ecosystem functioning. Models that explicitly represent competition between plants with alternative leaf trait plasticity in response to elevated CO2are needed to capture these influences on tropical forest functioning and large‐scale climate.

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  2. Abstract

    In tropical forests, both vegetation characteristics and soil properties are important not only for controlling energy, water, and gas exchanges directly but also determining the competition among species, successional dynamics, forest structure and composition. However, the joint effects of the two factors have received limited attention in Earth system model development. Here we use a vegetation demographic model, the Functionally Assembled Terrestrial Ecosystem Simulator (FATES) implemented in the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM) Land Model (ELM), ELM‐FATES, to explore how plant traits and soil properties affect tropical forest growth and composition concurrently. A large ensemble of simulations with perturbed vegetation and soil hydrological parameters is conducted at the Barro Colorado Island, Panama. The simulations are compared against observed carbon, energy, and water fluxes. We find that soil hydrological parameters, particularly the scaling exponent of the soil retention curve (Bsw), play crucial roles in controlling forest diversity, with higherBswvalues (>7) favoring late successional species in competition, and lowerBswvalues (1 ∼ 7) promoting the coexistence of early and late successional plants. Considering the additional impact of soil properties resolves a systematic bias of FATES in simulating sensible/latent heat partitioning with repercussion on water budget and plant coexistence. A greater fractionmore »of deeper tree roots can help maintain the dry‐season soil moisture and plant gas exchange. As soil properties are as important as vegetation parameters in predicting tropical forest dynamics, more efforts are needed to improve parameterizations of soil functions and belowground processes and their interactions with aboveground vegetation dynamics.

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  3. Summary

    Deep‐water access is arguably the most effective, but under‐studied, mechanism that plants employ to survive during drought. Vulnerability to embolism and hydraulic safety margins can predict mortality risk at given levels of dehydration, but deep‐water access may delay plant dehydration. Here, we tested the role of deep‐water access in enabling survival within a diverse tropical forest community in Panama using a novel data‐model approach.

    We inversely estimated the effective rooting depth (ERD, as the average depth of water extraction), for 29 canopy species by linking diameter growth dynamics (1990–2015) to vapor pressure deficit, water potentials in the whole‐soil column, and leaf hydraulic vulnerability curves. We validated ERD estimates against existing isotopic data of potential water‐access depths.

    Across species, deeper ERD was associated with higher maximum stem hydraulic conductivity, greater vulnerability to xylem embolism, narrower safety margins, and lower mortality rates during extreme droughts over 35 years (1981–2015) among evergreen species. Species exposure to water stress declined with deeper ERD indicating that trees compensate for water stress‐related mortality risk through deep‐water access.

    The role of deep‐water access in mitigating mortality of hydraulically‐vulnerable trees has important implications for our predictive understanding of forest dynamics under current and future climates.

  4. Abstract

    Numerous current efforts seek to improve the representation of ecosystem ecology and vegetation demographic processes within Earth System Models (ESMs). These developments are widely viewed as an important step in developing greater realism in predictions of future ecosystem states and fluxes. Increased realism, however, leads to increased model complexity, with new features raising a suite of ecological questions that require empirical constraints. Here, we review the developments that permit the representation of plant demographics inESMs, and identify issues raised by these developments that highlight important gaps in ecological understanding. These issues inevitably translate into uncertainty in model projections but also allow models to be applied to new processes and questions concerning the dynamics of real‐world ecosystems. We argue that stronger and more innovative connections to data, across the range of scales considered, are required to address these gaps in understanding. The development of first‐generation land surface models as a unifying framework for ecophysiological understanding stimulated much research into plant physiological traits and gas exchange. Constraining predictions at ecologically relevant spatial and temporal scales will require a similar investment of effort and intensified inter‐disciplinary communication.