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Changes in tree drought sensitivity provided early warning signals to the California drought and forest mortality event


Rachel M. Keen
Steven L. Voelker
S.-Y Simon Wang
Michael L. Goulden
Cody R. Dangerfield
Adam Z. Csank
Todd E. Dawson
Andrew G. Merschel
Christopher J. Still



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Rocky Mountain Research Station


Global Change Biology. 28(3): 1119-1132.


Climate warming in recent decades has negatively impacted forest health in the western United States. Here, we report on potential early warning signals (EWS) for drought-related mortality derived from measurements of tree-ring growth (ring width index; RWI) and carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C), primarily focused on ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). Sampling was conducted in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, near the epicenter of drought severity and mortality associated with the 2012-2015 California drought and concurrent outbreak of western pine beetle (Dendroctonus brevicomis). At this site, we found that widespread mortality was presaged by five decades of increasing sensitivity (i.e., increased explained variation) of both tree growth and Δ13C to Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). We hypothesized that increasing sensitivity of tree growth and Δ13C to hydroclimate constitute EWS that indicate an increased likelihood of widespread forest mortality caused by direct and indirect effects of drought. We then tested these EWS in additional ponderosa pine-dominated forests that experienced varying mortality rates associated with the same California drought event. In general, drier sites showed increasing sensitivity of RWI to PDSI over the last century, as well as higher mortality following the California drought event compared to wetter sites. Two sites displayed evidence that thinning or fire events that reduced stand basal area effectively reversed the trend of increasing hydroclimate sensitivity. These comparisons indicate that reducing competition for soil water and/or decreasing bark beetle host tree density via forest management - particularly in drier regions - may buffer these forests against drought stress and associated mortality risk. EWS such as these could provide land managers more time to mitigate the extent or severity of forest mortality in advance of droughts. Substantial efforts at deploying additional dendrochronological research in concert with remote sensing and forest modeling will aid in forecasting of forest responses to continued climate warming.


Keen, Rachel M.; Voelker, Steven L.; Wang, S.-Y. Simon; Bentz, Barbara J.; Goulden, Michael L.; Dangerfield, Cody R.; Reed, Charlotte C.; Hood, Sharon M.; Csank, Adam Z.; Dawson, Todd E.; Merschel, Andrew G.; Still, Christopher J. 2022. Changes in tree drought sensitivity provided early warning signals to the California drought and forest mortality event. Global Change Biology. 28(3): 1119-1132.


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