Tree water balance drives temperate forest responses to drought.
Intensifying drought is increasingly linked to global forest diebacks. Improved understanding of drought impacts on individual trees has provided limited insight into drought vulnerability in part because tree moisture access and depletion is difficult to quantify. In forests, moisture reservoir depletion occurs through water use by the trees themselves. Here, we show that drought impacts on tree fitness and demographic performance can be predicted by tracking the moisture reservoir available to trees as a mass balance, estimated in a hierarchical state-space framework. We apply this model to multiple seasonal droughts with tree transpiration measurements to demonstrate how species and size differences modulate moisture availability across landscapes. The depletion of individual moisture reservoirs can be tracked over the course of droughts and linked to biomass growth and reproductive output. This mass balance approach can predict individual moisture deficit, tree demographic performance, and drought vulnerability throughout forest stands based on measurements from a sample of trees.
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