Tree mortality from an exceptional drought spanning mesic to semiarid ecoregions

Georgianne W. Moore, Christopher B. Edgar, Jason G. Vogel, Robert A. Washington-Allen, Rosaleen G. March, Rebekah Zehnder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Significant areas of the southern USA periodically experience intense drought that can lead to episodic tree mortality events. Because drought tolerance varies among species and size of trees, such events can alter the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystem in ways that are difficult to detect with local data sets or solely with remote-sensing platforms. We investigated a widespread tree mortality event that resulted from the worst 1-year drought on record for the state of Texas, USA. The drought affected ecoregions spanning mesic to semiarid climate zones and provided a unique opportunity to test hypotheses related to how trees of varying genus and size were affected. The study was based on an extensive set of 599 distributed plots, each 0.16 ha, surveyed in the summer following the drought. In each plot, dead trees larger than 12.7 cm in diameter were counted, sized, and identified to the genus level. Estimates of total mortality were obtained for each of 10 regions using a combination of design-based estimators and calibrated remote sensing using MODIS 1-yr change in normalized difference vegetation index products developed by the U.S. Forest Service. As compared with most of the publicized extreme die-off events, this study documents relatively low rates of mortality occurring over a very large area. However, statewide, regional tree mortality was massive, with an estimated 6.2% of the live trees perishing, nearly nine times greater than normal annual mortality. Dead tree diameters averaged larger than the live trees for most ecoregions, and this trend was most pronounced in the wetter climate zones, suggesting a potential re-ordering of species dominance and downward trend in tree size that was specific to climatic regions. The net effect on carbon storage was estimated to be a redistribution of 24-30 Tg C from the live tree to dead tree carbon pool. The dead tree survey documented drought mortality in more than 29 genera across all regions, and surprisingly, drought resistant and sensitive species fared similarly in some regions. Both angiosperms and gymnosperms were affected. These results highlight that drought-driven mortality alters forest structure differently across climatic regions and genera.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)602-611
Number of pages10
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 by the Ecological Society of America.


  • Acute drought impact
  • Central North America
  • Dead carbon pool
  • Forest structure
  • Texas, USA
  • Tree death


Dive into the research topics of 'Tree mortality from an exceptional drought spanning mesic to semiarid ecoregions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this