Water availability limits tree productivity, carbon stocks, and carbon residence time in mature forests across the western US
Abstract. Water availability constrains the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystems and is projected to change in many parts of the world over the coming century. We quantified the response of tree net primary productivity (NPP), live biomass (BIO), and mean carbon residence time (CRT = BIO / NPP) to spatial variation in water availability in the western US. We used forest inventory measurements from 1953 mature stands (> 100 years) in Washington, Oregon, and California (WAORCA) along with satellite and climate data sets covering the western US. We summarized forest structure and function in both domains along a 400 cm yr−1 hydrologic gradient, quantified with a climate moisture index (CMI) based on the difference between precipitation and reference evapotranspiration summed over the water year (October–September) and then averaged annually from 1985 to 2014 (CMIwy). Median NPP, BIO, and CRT computed at 10 cm yr−1 intervals along the CMIwy gradient increased monotonically with increasing CMIwy across both WAORCA (rs = 0.93–0.96, p < 0.001) and the western US (rs = 0.93–0.99, p < 0.001). Field measurements from WAORCA showed that median NPP increased from 2.2 to 5.6 Mg C ha−1 yr−1 between the driest and wettest 5 % of sites, while BIO increased from 26 to 281 Mg C ha−1 and CRT increased from 11 to 49 years. The satellite data sets revealed similar changes over the western US, though these data sets tended to plateau in the wettest areas, suggesting that additional efforts are needed to better quantify NPP and BIO from satellites in high-productivity, high-biomass forests. Our results illustrate that long-term average water availability is a key environmental constraint on tree productivity, carbon storage, and carbon residence time in mature forests across the western US, underscoring the need to assess potential ecosystem response to projected warming and drying over the coming century.