The mechanisms governing tree drought mortality and recovery remain a subject of inquiry and active debate given their role in the terrestrial carbon cycle and their concomitant impact on climate change. Counter-intuitively, many trees do not die during the drought itself. Indeed, observations globally have documented that trees often grow for several years after drought before mortality. A combination of meta-analysis and tree physiological models demonstrate that optimal carbon allocation after drought explains observed patterns of delayed tree mortality and provides a predictive recovery framework. Specifically, post-drought, trees attempt to repair water transport tissue and achieve positive carbon balance through regrowing drought-damaged xylem. Further, the number of years of xylem regrowth required to recover function increases with tree size, explaining why drought mortality increases with size. These results indicate that tree resilience to drought-kill may increase in the future, provided that CO2 fertilization facilitates more rapid xylem regrowth.
Future projections suggest an increase in drought globally with climate change. Current vegetation models typically regulate the plant photosynthetic response to soil moisture stress through an empirical function, rather than a mechanistic response where plant water potentials respond to changes in soil water. This representation of soil moisture stress may introduce significant uncertainty into projections for the terrestrial carbon cycle. We examined the use of the soil moisture limitation function in historical and future emissions scenarios in nine Earth system models. We found that soil moisture-limited productivity across models represented a large and uncertain component of the simulated carbon cycle, comparable to 3-286% of current global productivity. Approximately 40-80% of the intermodel variability was due to the functional form of the limitation equation alone. Our results highlight the importance of implementing mechanistic water limitation schemes in models and illuminate several avenues for improving projections of the land carbon sink.