Climate-induced tree mortality is an increasing concern for forest managers around the world. We used a coupled hydrologic and ecosystem carbon cycling model to assess temperature and precipitation impacts on productivity and survival of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). Model predictions were evaluated using observations of productivity and survival for three ponderosa pine stands located across an 800 m elevation gradient in the southern Rocky Mountains, USA, during a 10-year period that ended in a severe drought and extensive tree mortality at the lowest elevation site. We demonstrate the utility of a relatively simple representation of declines in non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) as an approach for estimating patterns of ponderosa pine vulnerability to drought and the likelihood of survival along an elevation gradient. We assess the sensitivity of simulated net primary production, NSC storage dynamics, and mortality to site climate and soil characteristics as well as uncertainty in the allocation of carbon to the NSC pool. For a fairly wide set of assumptions, the model estimates captured elevational gradients and temporal patterns in growth and biomass. Model results that best predict mortality risk also yield productivity, leaf area, and biomass estimates that are qualitatively consistent with observations across the sites. Using this constrained set of parameters, we found that productivity and likelihood of survival were equally dependent on elevation-driven variation in temperature and precipitation. Our results demonstrate the potential for a coupled hydrology-ecosystem carbon cycling model that includes a simple model of NSC dynamics to predict drought-related mortality. Given that increases in temperature and in the frequency and severity of drought are predicted for a broad range of ponderosa pine and other western North America conifer forest habitats, the model potentially has broad utility for assessing ecosystem vulnerabilities.
Additional publication details
An integrated model of environmental effects on growth, carbohydrate balance, and mortality of Pinus ponderosa forests in the southern Rocky Mountains