The rich ecology of tropical forests is intimately tied to their moisture status. Multi-site syntheses can provide a macro-scale view of these linkages and their susceptibility to changing climates. Here, we report pan-tropical and regional-scale analyses of tree vulnerability to drought.
We assembled available data on tropical forest tree stem mortality before, during, and after recent drought events, from 119 monitoring plots in 10 countries concentrated in Amazonia and Borneo.
In most sites, larger trees are disproportionately at risk. At least within Amazonia, low wood density trees are also at greater risk of drought-associated mortality, independent of size. For comparable drought intensities, trees in Borneo are more vulnerable than trees in the Amazon. There is some evidence for lagged impacts of drought, with mortality rates remaining elevated 2 yr after the meteorological event is over.
These findings indicate that repeated droughts would shift the functional composition of tropical forests toward smaller, denser-wooded trees. At very high drought intensities, the linear relationship between tree mortality and moisture stress apparently breaks down, suggesting the existence of moisture stress thresholds beyond which some tropical forests would suffer catastrophic tree mortality.