Long-term thermal sensitivity of Earth’s tropical forests

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Science  22 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6493, pp. 869-874
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7578

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Thermal sensitivity of tropical trees

A key uncertainty in climate change models is the thermal sensitivity of tropical forests and how this value might influence carbon fluxes. Sullivan et al. measured carbon stocks and fluxes in permanent forest plots distributed globally. This synthesis of plot networks across climatic and biogeographic gradients shows that forest thermal sensitivity is dominated by high daytime temperatures. This extreme condition depresses growth rates and shortens the time that carbon resides in the ecosystem by killing trees under hot, dry conditions. The effect of temperature is worse above 32°C, and a greater magnitude of climate change thus risks greater loss of tropical forest carbon stocks. Nevertheless, forest carbon stocks are likely to remain higher under moderate climate change if they are protected from direct impacts such as clearance, logging, or fires.

Science, this issue p. 869


The sensitivity of tropical forest carbon to climate is a key uncertainty in predicting global climate change. Although short-term drying and warming are known to affect forests, it is unknown if such effects translate into long-term responses. Here, we analyze 590 permanent plots measured across the tropics to derive the equilibrium climate controls on forest carbon. Maximum temperature is the most important predictor of aboveground biomass (−9.1 megagrams of carbon per hectare per degree Celsius), primarily by reducing woody productivity, and has a greater impact per °C in the hottest forests (>32.2°C). Our results nevertheless reveal greater thermal resilience than observations of short-term variation imply. To realize the long-term climate adaptation potential of tropical forests requires both protecting them and stabilizing Earth’s climate.

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