SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • aspen;
  • boreal forest;
  • climate change;
  • dieback;
  • drought;
  • mortality;
  • Populus tremuloides

Abstract

Drought-induced, regional-scale dieback of forests has emerged as a global concern that is expected to escalate under model projections of climate change. Since 2000, drought of unusual severity, extent, and duration has affected large areas of western North America, leading to regional-scale dieback of forests in the southwestern US. We report on drought impacts on forests in a region farther north, encompassing the transition between boreal forest and prairie in western Canada. A central question is the significance of drought as an agent of large-scale tree mortality and its potential future impact on carbon cycling in this cold region. We used a combination of plot-based, meteorological, and remote sensing measures to map and quantify aboveground, dead biomass of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) across an 11.5 Mha survey area where drought was exceptionally severe during 2001–2002. Within this area, a satellite-based land cover map showed that aspen-dominated broadleaf forests occupied 2.3 Mha. Aerial surveys revealed extensive patches of severe mortality (>55%) resembling the impacts of fire. Dead aboveground biomass was estimated at 45 Mt, representing 20% of the total aboveground biomass, based on a spatial interpolation of plot-based measurements. Spatial variation in percentage dead biomass showed a moderately strong correlation with drought severity. In the prairie-like, southern half of the study area where the drought was most severe, 35% of aspen biomass was dead, compared with an estimated 7% dead biomass in the absence of drought. Drought led to an estimated 29 Mt increase in dead biomass across the survey area, corresponding to 14 Mt of potential future carbon emissions following decomposition. Many recent, comparable episodes of drought-induced forest dieback have been reported from around the world, which points to an emerging need for multiscale monitoring approaches to quantify drought effects on woody biomass and carbon cycling across large areas.