Saturday, August 1, 2015

Drought’s lasting impact on forests

University of Utah News Center: In the virtual worlds of climate modeling, forests and other vegetation are assumed to bounce back quickly from extreme drought. But that assumption is far off the mark, according to a new study of drought impacts at forest sites worldwide. Living trees took an average of two to four years to recover and resume normal growth rates after droughts ended, researchers report today in the journal Science.

“This really matters because in the future droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change,” says lead author William R.L. Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah. “Some forests could be in a race to recover before the next drought

Forest trees play a big role in buffering the impact of human-induced climate change by removing massive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere and incorporating the carbon into woody tissues. The finding that drought stress sets back tree growth for years suggests that Earth’s forests are capable of storing less carbon than climate models have calculated.

“If forests are not as good at taking up carbon dioxide, this means climate change would speed up,” says Anderegg, who performed much of the work on this study while at Princeton University. He co-authored the study with colleagues at Princeton, Northern Arizona University, University of Nevada-Reno, Pyrenean Institute Of Ecology, University of New Mexico, Arizona State University, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

The rate of recovery from drought is largely unknown for the vast majority of tree species. Anderegg and colleagues carefully measured the recovery of tree stem growth after severe droughts since 1948 at more than 1,300 forest sites around the earth using records from the International Tree Ring Data Bank. Tree rings provide a convenient history of wood growth and track carbon uptake of the ecosystem in which the tree grew.

The researchers found that a few forests showed positive effects, that is, observed growth was higher than predicted after drought, most prominently in parts of California and the Mediterranean region. But in the majority of the world’s forests, trees struggled for years after experiencing drought....

Photo of a struggling forest in Arizona, shot by Brian Thomas. Public domain

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