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Projected drought effects on the demography of Ashe juniper populations inferred from remote measurements of tree canopies

Authors: 
Polley HW, DM Johnson, RB Jackson
Year: 
2018
Journal: 
Plant Ecology
Journal Volume/Pages: 
219:1259-1267

Tree mortality from drought is anticipated to increase as climate change promotes more frequent or severe water limitation. Ecosystem impacts of woody mortality depend on both the number and sizes of trees that die, but a limited capacity to predict mortality risk for individual trees hinders the capacity to forecast drought effects on tree population demography and ecosystem processes. We remotely measured leaf area of living Ashe juniper trees at three savanna sites in central Texas, USA to characterize the frequency-size distribution (FSD) of juniper populations and evaluate mortality risk from drought as a function of tree size. Mortality risk of individuals was assessed from the deviation in leaf area per tree from that of a similarly sized individual with near maximal leaf area using correlations among leaf area, growth rate, and mortality measured during a prior drought. We found that the FSD of juniper trees is bell-shaped at each site. Mortality risk from drought exceeded 25% of emergent (> 4 m height) trees in savanna juniper populations, but was highest for largest trees. Mortality risk was greatest at a grazed savanna, exceeding 50% of trees with projected canopy area > 20 m2. Results imply that severe drought could kill a large fraction (18–85%) of intermediate- to large-sized Ashe juniper trees in central Texas savannas. Our analysis demonstrates a novel use of remote measurements of canopy foliation to link mortality risk from drought to the demography of Ashe juniper populations through properties of individual trees.

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