Tree mortality is an important process causing forest structural and compositional change. In this study, we investigate the influence of drought and topography on recent patterns of tree mortality in old-growth mixed conifer forests in Yosemite National Park, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California, USA. The surveyed stands have experienced a century of fire exclusion and are dominated by associations of Pinus ponderosa, Calocedrus decurrens and Abies concolor. The average age of trees in the stands was 88 years. We sought answers to the following questions: (1) Do periods of high tree mortality correspond with drought? (2) Do spatial and temporal patterns of high tree mortality vary by slope aspect? and (3) Do different tree species exhibit similar temporal and spatial patterns of tree mortality? We identified temporal patterns of tree mortality on three north- and south-facing slopes by determining the death date of trees using dendrochronology. Tree death date frequency was then compared by slope aspect and to Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), and April snowpack depth as measures of growing season water availability. The frequency of tree death dates was negatively correlated with annual and seasonal PDSI and April snowpack depth, and more trees died in years with below normal PDSI and snowpack. Correlations between tree mortality and drought were evident only for multi-year periods (2-5 years). Temporal patterns of tree death were similar on north- and south-facing slopes and among species, but the density of dead trees was higher on north than south slopes. Dense stand conditions caused by fire suppression, and the coincident outbreak of bark beetles during drought, may have limited any buffering effect of topography on tree mortality. Drought induced tree mortality in mixed conifer forests in Yosemite National Park highlights the importance of both historical legacies such as fire suppression and exogenous controls such as climate as drivers of vegetation change.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Nature and Landscape Conservation
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law