Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Why is tree drought mortality so hard to predict?

March 2, 2021

Widespread tree mortality following droughts has emerged as an environmentally and economically devastating ‘ecological surprise’. It is well established that tree physiology is important in understanding drought-driven mortality; however, the accuracy of predictions based on physiology alone has been limited. We propose that complicating factors at two levels stymie predictions of drought-driven mortality: (i) organismal-level physiological and site factors that obscure understanding of drought exposure and vulnerability and (ii) community-level ecological interactions, particularly with biotic agents whose effects on tree mortality may reverse expectations based on stress physiology. We conclude with a path forward that emphasizes the need for an integrative approach to stress physiology and biotic agent dynamics when assessing forest risk to drought-driven morality in a changing climate.