Systemic effects of rising atmospheric vapor pressure deficit on plant physiology and productivity

José López, Danielle A. Way, Walid Sadok

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Earth is currently undergoing a global increase in atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a trend which is expected to continue as climate warms. This phenomenon has been associated with productivity decreases in ecosystems and yield penalties in crops, with these losses attributed to photosynthetic limitations arising from decreased stomatal conductance. Such VPD increases, however, have occurred over decades, which raises the possibility that stomatal acclimation to VPD plays an important role in determining plant productivity under high VPD. Furthermore, evidence points to more far-ranging and complex effects of elevated VPD on plant physiology, extending to the anatomical, biochemical, and developmental levels, which could vary substantially across species. Because these complex effects are typically not considered in modeling frameworks, we conducted a quantitative literature review documenting temperature-independent VPD effects on 112 species and 59 traits and physiological variables, in order to develop an integrated and mechanistic physiological framework. We found that VPD increase reduced yield and primary productivity, an effect that was partially mediated by stomatal acclimation, and also linked with changes in leaf anatomy, nutrient, and hormonal status. The productivity decrease was also associated with negative effects on reproductive development, and changes in architecture and growth rates that could decrease the evaporative surface or minimize embolism risk. Cross-species quantitative relationships were found between levels of VPD increase and trait responses, and we found differences across plant groups, indicating that future VPD impacts will depend on community assembly and crop functional diversity. Our analysis confirms predictions arising from the hydraulic corollary to Darcy's law, outlines a systemic physiological framework of plant responses to rising VPD, and provides recommendations for future research to better understand and mitigate VPD-mediated climate change effects on ecosystems and agro-systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1704-1720
Number of pages17
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
W.S. was supported by USDA NIFA through the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station (Project# MIN-13-124), the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (Contract No. 138815), the Minnesota Wheat Research & Promotion Council (Projects# 00070003 and 00076909), and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (Projects# 00070622 and 00078080). D.A.W. acknowledges funding from the NSERC Discovery program and support from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University. D.A.W. was also supported in part by the United States Department of Energy Contract No. DE-SC0012704 to Brookhaven National Laboratory. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • climate change
  • food security
  • meta-analysis
  • plant acclimation
  • stomatal conductance
  • vapor pressure deficit

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Review


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