What plant hydraulics can tell us about responses to climate-change droughts
Climate change exposes vegetation to unusual drought, causing declines in productivity and increased mortality. Drought responses are hard to anticipate because canopy transpiration and diffusive conductance (G) respond to drying soil and vapor-pressure deficit (D) in complex ways. A growing data base of hydraulic traits, combined with a parsimonious theory of tree water transport and its regulation, may improve predictions of at-risk vegetation. The theory uses the physics of flow through soil and xylem to quantify how canopy water supply declines with drought and ceases by hydraulic failure. This transpiration "supply function" is used to predict a water "loss function" by assuming that stomatal regulation exploits transport capacity while avoiding failure. Supply-loss theory incorporates root distribution, hydraulic redistribution, cavitation vulnerability, and cavitation reversal.
The supply-loss theory efficiently defines stomatal responses to D, drying soil, and hydraulic vulnerability. Driving the theory with climate predicts drought-induced loss of plant hydraulic conductance, k, canopy G, carbon assimilation, and productivity. Data lead to the "chronic stress hypothesis" wherein > 60% loss of k increases mortality by multiple mechanisms. Supply-loss theory predicts the climatic conditions that push vegetation over this risk threshold. The theory's simplicity and predictive power encourages testing and application in large-scale modeling.