Precipitation thresholds and drought-induced tree die-off: insights from patterns of Pinus edulis mortality along an environmental stress gradient



  • Recent regional tree die-off events appear to have been triggered by a combination of drought and heat – referred to as ‘global-change-type drought’. To complement experiments focused on resolving mechanisms of drought-induced tree mortality, an evaluation of how patterns of tree die-off relate to highly spatially variable precipitation is needed.
  • Here, we explore precipitation relationships with a die-off event of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) in southwestern North America during the 2002–2003 global-change-type drought. Pinyon die-off and its relationship with precipitation was quantified spatially along a precipitation gradient in north-central New Mexico with standard field plot measurements of die-off combined with canopy cover derived from normalized burn ratio (NBR) from Landsat imagery.
  • Pinyon die-off patterns revealed threshold responses to precipitation (cumulative 2002–2003) and vapor pressure deficit (VPD), with little to no mortality (< 10%) above 600 mm and below warm season VPD of c. 1.7 kPa. [Correction added after online publication 17 June 2013; in the preceding sentence, the word ‘below’ has been inserted.]
  • Our results refine how precipitation patterns within a region influence pinyon die-off, revealing a precipitation and VPD threshold for tree mortality and its uncertainty band where other factors probably come into play – a response type that influences stand demography and landscape heterogeneity and is of general interest, yet has not been documented.