Soil and stand structure explain shrub mortality patterns following global change-type drought and extreme precipitation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


ECOLOGY, Volume 100 (2019)


Artemisia tridentata, big sagebrush, chronic drought, die-off, extreme weather events, hot drought


<p>The probability of extreme weather events is increasing, with the potential for widespread impacts to plants, plant communities, and ecosystems. Reports of drought-related tree mortality are becoming more frequent, and there is increasing evidence that drought accompanied by high temperatures is especially detrimental. Simultaneously, extreme large precipitation events have become more frequent over the past century. Water-limited ecosystems may be more vulnerable to these extreme events than other ecosystems, especially when pushed outside of their historical range of variability. However, drought-related mortality of shrubs-an important component of dryland vegetation-remains understudied relative to tree mortality. In 2014, a landscape-scale die-off of the widespread shrub, big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.), was reported in southwest Wyoming, following extreme hot and dry conditions in 2012 and extremely high precipitation in September of 2013. Here we examine how severe drought, extreme precipitation, soil texture and salinity, and shrub-stand characteristics contributed to this die-off event. At 98 plots within and around the die-off, we quantified big sagebrush mortality, characterized soil texture and salinity, and simulated soil-water conditions from 1916 to 2016 using an ecosystem water-balance model. We found that the extreme weather conditions alone did not explain patterns of big sagebrush mortality and did not result in extreme (historically unprecedented) soil-water conditions during the drought. Instead, plots with chronically dry soil conditions experienced greatest mortality following the global change-type (hot) drought in 2012. Furthermore, mortality was greater in locations with high potential run-on and low potential run-off where saturated soil conditions were simulated in September 2013, suggesting that extreme precipitation also played an important role in the die-off in these locations. In locations where drought alone contributed to mortality, stem density negatively impacted big sagebrush. In locations that may have been affected by both drought and saturation, however, mortality was greatest where stem density was lowest, suggesting that these locations may have already been less favorable to big sagebrush. Paradoxically, vulnerability to both extreme events (drought and saturation) was associated with finer-textured soils, and our results highlight the importance of soils in determining local variation of the vulnerability of dryland plants to extreme events.</p>