Aspen. Scientists have determined that the recent widespread die-off of Colorado trembling aspen trees is a direct result of decreased precipitation exacerbated by high summer temperatures. (Credit: © Lane Erickson / Fotolia)

Feb. 11, 2013 — A team of scientists, led by researchers at Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology, has determined that the recent widespread die-off of Colorado trembling aspen trees is a direct result of decreased precipitation exacerbated by high summer temperatures. The die-off, triggered by the drought from 2000-2003, is estimated to have affected up to 17% of Colorado aspen forests. In 2002, the drought subjected the trees to the most extreme growing season water stress of the past century.

While often not killing the trees directly, the drought damaged the ability of the trees to provide water to their leaves, leading to a decline in growth and increased mortality that has continued for a decade after the drought. The research is published on-line in Global Change Biology. Another related study appeared earlier this year in the same journal.

Until recently, there has been little attention paid to what drought characteristics (seasonal differences, severity, or durations) actually cause trees to die. Scientists additionally have lacked a sufficient understanding of the processes that lead to die-offs, which inhibits the ability to predict how climate change can affect different ecosystems.

The recent study was led by brothers Leander and William Anderegg.* William was a Ph.D. student while Leander was an undergraduate at the time of the research at Carnegie. The team looked at the dynamics of water availability to the trees by examining the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the sap contained in the tree "veins" that transport water. Isotopes are atoms with the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons and their ratios are signatures of where and when water originates, among other features. "Mother nature provides us with natural fingerprints in the ratio of oxygen isotopes," explained Leander. "They tell us about the type of water available to the trees. For instance, summer rain has different isotopic ratios than winter snow. So we can use these markers to figure out where and when the water found in tree veins was taken up, which in turn helps us determine drought impacts."

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