Density-dependent vulnerability of forest ecosystems to drought.
Climate models predict increasing drought intensity and frequency for many regions, which may have negative consequences for tree recruitment, growth and mortality, as well as forest ecosystem services. Furthermore, practical strategies for minimizing vulnerability to drought are limited. Tree population density, a metric of tree abundance in a given area, is a primary driver of competitive intensity among trees, which influences tree growth and mortality. Manipulating tree population density may be a mechanism for moderating drought-induced stress and growth reductions, although the relationship between tree population density and tree drought vulnerability remains poorly quantified, especially across climatic gradients. In this study, we examined three long-term forest ecosystem experiments in two widely distributed North American pine species, ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa (Lawson & C. Lawson) and red pine Pinus resinosa (Aiton), to better elucidate the relationship between tree population density, growth and drought. These experiments span a broad latitude and aridity range and include tree population density treatments that have been purposefully maintained for several decades. We investigated how tree population density influenced resistance (growth during drought) and resilience (growth after drought compared to pre-drought growth) of stand-level growth during and after documented drought events. Our results show that relative tree population density was negatively related to drought resistance and resilience, indicating that trees growing at lower densities were less vulnerable to drought. This result was apparent in all three forest ecosystems, and was consistent across species, stand age and drought intensity. Synthesis and applications. Our results highlighted that managing pine forest ecosystems at low tree population density represents a promising adaptive strategy for reducing the adverse impacts of drought on forest growth in coming decades. Nonetheless, the broader applicability of our findings to other types of forest ecosystems merits additional investigation.