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Drought survival strategies differ between coastal and montane conifers in northern California

March 26, 2023

Increasingly severe and prolonged droughts are contributing to tree stress and forest mortality across western North America. However, in many cases, we currently have poor information concerning how drought responses in forests vary in relation to competition, climate, and site and tree characteristics. We used annual tree ring evidence of 13C discrimination (Δ13C) and growth metrics to assess drought resistance and resilience for six conifer species at the intersection of several bioregions in northern California. Within each species' range in northern California, we collected competition and tree characteristics from 270 focal trees across sites that varied from wetter to drier habitat conditions (54 sites). Across sites, all six conifer species weathered the severe 2013–2015 drought with reasonably high resistance and post-drought resilience. However, we found important differences in drought responses between coastal and montane species based on annual growth and Δ13C metrics. Broadly, the two coastal species showed consistent declines in drought resistance across successive drought years, whereas the four montane species maintained high drought resistance across drought years. More specifically, we found lower Δ13C and growth during drought years in coastal species, suggesting stomatal closure during drought with the potential for vulnerability to carbon depletion during long-term drought. Conversely, Δ13C and growth were stable in montane species throughout the drought, which may contribute to hydraulic failure under increased drought frequency and/or severity. We also evaluated environmental factors that affect Δ13C using data from before and during the drought. These physiological models were consistent for the two coastal species, with a positive relationship between annual precipitation and Δ13C and a negative relationship between tree density and Δ13C. Conversely, the four montane models illustrated a greater importance of site conditions on drought responses for these species. Our findings show differential risk for drought stress across diverse conifers during severe drought. This work highlights the importance of site and tree characteristics in determining drought responses across cool, annually humid coastal habitats to seasonally dry montane habitats.

Publication Year 2023
Title Drought survival strategies differ between coastal and montane conifers in northern California
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4480
Authors Wallis Robinson, Lucy P. Kerhoulas, Rosemary L. Sherriff, Gabriel Roletti, Phillip J. van Mantgem
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70241815
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center