I don’t know much about Rolling Stone magazine. Like many, I presume, my impression is all electric guitars and rock and roll. So to stumble across one of the most engaging and accurate descriptions of the impacts of the current years-long drought on the forests of California was surprising in the least. The article is well-written and covers the complexities of plant water stress in an understandable way. It also addresses the global problem of drought and what that means for trees. The news is not good but since when did tree physiology become so rock and roll? Well, California is currently in the worst drought on record. Agriculture, food prices and water availability are suffering. The combination of low rainfall and extreme heat is killing forests and woodlands in a climate change double punch. And the situation is similar across the US and in other parts of the world where droughts are becoming more frequent and severe.
Here in New Zealand, we might expect to be buffered from such events. Our maritime climate is often described as mild. Temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot and annual rainfalls are generally more than adequate. Yet droughts are a common feature in the climate of New Zealand and images of browned agricultural areas have become common in the media in recent summers. The summer of 2012-13 was the most widespread and severe in 70 years. With future projections indicating parts of the country will spend more time in drought, there will be measurable impacts on agriculture, the economy and even health.
While droughts in New Zealand last months, not years, there is still a real potential for substantial impacts on forested systems. Tree mortality has been recorded in our native forests and there is evidence that trees living in wetter climates may have less of a buffer against dry periods. All forest biomes are equally susceptible to drought mortality no matter what their current rainfall is. If droughts are not severe enough to cause death, other processes and functions may be disrupted. For instance, carbon cycling can be altered and pathogen attack can be exacerbated. Some of the research I’ve been doing with students and colleagues is showing some native species have adaptations for drought survival (here and here) but we need more research to understand the thresholds of water stress, recovery after drought and impacts of subsequent droughts. I’m sure drought research will never reach rock and roll status in New Zealand but we’re certainly working towards improving our understanding of the threat of drought in native forests.
Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.