Impacts of severe drought on tropical forest post-disturbance recovery

Collaborators: Rebecca Montgomery (U. Minnesota), Chris Smith-Martin (Columbia U), Tana Wood (US Forest Service), Xiangtao Xu (Cornell U).

Funding: NSF – DEB

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of drought in tropical forests and the intensity of hurricanes is also anticipated to rise with a warming climate. Hurricanes open up the canopy, increasing understory light and temperature, and favoring light-loving species, which are particularly sensitive to water stress. As a result, forests recovering from hurricanes may be particularly susceptible to drought. Improving the representation of the recovery process, including impacts of water stress, in regrowing forests is a key challenge for accurately predicting the impacts of climate change on tropical forests and assessing their resilience to future climate.

We are carrying out a large-scale partial rainfall exclusion experiment in the Luquillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico. Extensive hurricane tree damage data and long-term demographic  information collected after the passage of Hurricane Maria (2017) and two other hurricanes will extend understanding of post-disturbance forest dynamics under drought. This information will be used to improve understanding of the eco-physiological responses of trees to the joint impacts of drought and hurricane damage, with a particular emphasis on characterizing post-hurricane recovery under variable rainfall conditions. By including representation of tree hydraulics and the effects of hurricane damage on water and carbon dynamics in models, the research will also improve assessment of the impacts of various climate change scenarios on tree species composition and carbon dynamics.

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