Articles | Volume 12, issue 22
Research article
19 Nov 2015
Research article |  | 19 Nov 2015

Water limitations on forest carbon cycling and conifer traits along a steep climatic gradient in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon

L. T. Berner and B. E. Law

Abstract. Severe droughts occurred in the western United States during recent decades, and continued human greenhouse gas emissions are expected to exacerbate warming and drying in this region. We investigated the role of water availability in shaping forest carbon cycling and morphological traits in the eastern Cascade Mountains, Oregon, focusing on the transition from low-elevation, dry western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) woodlands to higher-elevation, wetter ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and grand fir (Abies grandis) forests. We examined 12 sites in mature forests that spanned a 1300 mm yr−1 gradient in mean growing-year climate moisture index (CMIgy ), computed annually (1964 to 2013) as monthly precipitation minus reference evapotranspiration and summed October to September. Maximum leaf area, annual aboveground productivity, and aboveground live tree biomass increased with CMIgy (r2 = 0.67–0.88, P < 0.05), approximately 50-, 30-, and 10-fold along this drier to wetter gradient. Interannual fluctuations in CMI affected the annual radial growth of 91 % of juniper, 51 % of pine, and 12 % of fir individuals from 1964 to 2013. The magnitude of the site-average growth–CMI correlations decreased with increased CMIgy (r2 = 0.53, P < 0.05). All three species, particularly fir, experienced pronounced declines in radial growth from c. 1985 to 1994, coinciding with a period of sustained below-average CMIgy and extensive insect outbreak. Traits of stress-tolerant juniper included short stature, high wood density for cavitation resistance, and high investment in water transport relative to leaf area. Species occupying wetter areas invested more resources in height growth in response to competition for light relative to investment in hydraulic architecture. Consequently, maximum tree height, leaf area : sapwood area ratio, and stem wood density were all correlated with CMIgy . The tight coupling of forest carbon cycling and species traits with water availability suggests that warmer and drier conditions projected for the 21st century could have significant biogeochemical, ecological, and social consequences in the Pacific Northwest.

Short summary
We investigated the role of water availability in shaping forest carbon cycling and conifer morphological traits in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon, a region that is expected to become warmer and drier in the coming century. Forest leaf area, productivity, and biomass were strongly related to mean annual water availability. Across the hydroclimatic gradient, trees exhibited interspecific variation in traits that balanced maintaining hydraulic function against the need to compete for light.
Final-revised paper