Temperate forest health in an era of emerging megadisturbance

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Science  21 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6250, pp. 823-826
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa9933

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  • Recent climate may have masked the vulnerability of mesic temperate forests
    • Dario Martin-Benito, Forest Ecology, Department of Environmental Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich,
    • Other Contributors:
      • Neil Pederson, Harvard University, Harvard Forest

    C. I. Millar and N. L. Stephenson (1) argue that climate change is exacerbating drought, altering the life cycle of pests, and threatening temperate forests through massive tree mortality (“megadisturbances”). We strongly agree. These findings, however, are mostly based on dry temperate forests and the potential impact on diverse temperate mesic forests may not be as clear. We posit that better determining climatic impacts on these forests is important because they cover 12 million km2, provide services for >1 billion people, and are a major influence on the global carbon cycle.

    The paradigmatic disturbance regime in temperate, mesic forests is frequent, small-scale, asynchronous, or low-impact disturbances. Thus, their resiliency to climatic change at large scales is presumed high. In contrast, vegetation models indicate drastically different ecological states (2) although mechanisms of large-scale dynamics are uncertain, especially in response to extreme climate.

    We put forth two hypotheses regarding the climatic vulnerability of temperate, mesic forests, using eastern North America as an example. First, historical land-use drives a synchronous development of forests of large trees, which are more vulnerable to drought (3). Second, though drought induces hydraulic failure at global scale (4), the recent period of ecological research in eastern North America occurred during one of the wettest eras of the last 3-4 centuries, which likely lead to the idea...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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