Drought characteristics' role in widespread aspen forest mortality across Colorado, USA


Correspondence: William R. L. Anderegg, Gilbert Building, Room 109, 371 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305-5020, USA, tel. +970 739-4954, fax + 650-462-5968, e-mail: anderegg@stanford.edu


Globally documented widespread drought-induced forest mortality has important ramifications for plant community structure, ecosystem function, and the ecosystem services provided by forests. Yet the characteristics of drought seasonality, severity, and duration that trigger mortality events have received little attention despite evidence of changing precipitation regimes, shifting snow melt timing, and increasing temperature stress. This study draws upon stand level ecohydrology and statewide climate and spatial analysis to examine the drought characteristics implicated in the recent widespread mortality of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.). We used isotopic observations of aspen xylem sap to determine water source use during natural and experimental drought in a region that experienced high tree mortality. We then drew upon multiple sources of climate data to characterize the drought that triggered aspen mortality. Finally, regression analysis was used to examine the drought characteristics most associated with the spatial patterns of aspen mortality across Colorado. Isotopic analysis indicated that aspens generally utilize shallow soil moisture with little plasticity during drought stress. Climate analysis showed that the mortality-inciting drought was unprecedented in the observational record, especially in 2002 growing season temperature and evaporative deficit, resulting in record low shallow soil moisture reserves. High 2002 summer temperature and low shallow soil moisture were most associated with the spatial patterns of aspen mortality. These results suggest that the 2002 drought subjected Colorado aspens to the most extreme growing season water stress of the past century by creating high atmospheric moisture demand and depleting the shallow soil moisture upon which aspens rely. Our findings highlight the important role of drought characteristics in mediating widespread aspen forest mortality, link this aspen die-off to regional climate change trends, and provide insight into future climate vulnerability of these forests.