Low stand density moderates growth declines during hot droughts in semi-arid forests.
Increasing heat and aridity in coming decades is expected to negatively impact tree growth and threaten forest sustainability in dry areas. Maintaining low stand density has the potential to mitigate the negative effects of increasingly severe droughts by minimizing competitive intensity. However, the direct impact of stand density on the growing environment (i.e. soil moisture), and the specific drought metrics that best quantify that environment, are not well explored for any forest ecosystem. We examined the relationship of varying stand density (i.e. basal area) on soil moisture and stand-level growth in a long-term (multi-decadal), ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa, forest management experiment. We accounted for the influence of stand-level density on moisture availability by measuring and modelling soil moisture using an ecosystem water balance model. To quantify the growing environment, we developed metrics of ecological drought that integrate the influence of moisture availability in the soil with moisture demand by the atmosphere. We paired these results with stand-level dendrochronological data, avoiding the potential bias introduced from individual tree-based assessments, and used critical climate period analysis to identify the timing and duration of these drought metrics that most relate to forest growth. We found that stand-level growth is highly responsive to the combination of high temperature and low soil moisture. Growth in all stands was negatively related to temperature and positively related to moisture availability, although the sensitivity of growth to those conditions varied among stand density treatments. Growth enhancement during cool years is greatest in low density stands. In addition, low density stands displayed substantially higher long-term average growth than higher density stands and maintained higher growth even when temperatures were high. Growth in low density stands also increased more than higher density stands in response to greater long-term moisture availability. Synthesis and applications. We quantified the influence of stand-level density on the environmental conditions that determine tree growth and related forest growth to patterns of moisture supply and demand. Our drought metrics, and analytical approach for quantifying drought impacts on forest growth, are a novel approach for assessing forest vulnerability to drought under climate change. These results provide new perspective on the potential for density management to mitigate drought stress and maintain forest stand growth during and after drought events in water-limited forests.