SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • Drought;
  • extreme events;
  • forest die-off;
  • heat waves;
  • tree mortality

Abstract

Increases in drought and temperature stress in forest and woodland ecosystems are thought to be responsible for the rise in episodic mortality events observed globally. However, key climatic drivers common to mortality events and the impacts of future extreme droughts on tree survival have not been evaluated. Here, we characterize climatic drivers associated with documented tree die-off events across Australia using standardized climatic indices to represent the key dimensions of drought stress for a range of vegetation types. We identify a common probabilistic threshold associated with an increased risk of die-off across all the sites that we examined. We show that observed die-off events occur when water deficits and maximum temperatures are high and exist outside 98% of the observed range in drought intensity; this threshold was evident at all sites regardless of vegetation type and climate. The observed die-off events also coincided with at least one heat wave (three consecutive days above the 90th percentile for maximum temperature), emphasizing a pivotal role of heat stress in amplifying tree die-off and mortality processes. The joint drought intensity and maximum temperature distributions were modeled for each site to describe the co-occurrence of both hot and dry conditions and evaluate future shifts in climatic thresholds associated with the die-off events. Under a relatively dry and moderate warming scenario, the frequency of droughts capable of inducing significant tree die-off across Australia could increase from 1 in 24 years to 1 in 15 years by 2050, accompanied by a doubling in the occurrence of associated heat waves. By defining commonalities in drought conditions capable of inducing tree die-off, we show a strong interactive effect of water and high temperature stress and provide a consistent approach for assessing changes in the exposure of ecosystems to extreme drought events.