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Xiaoyan Jiang, Sara A. Rauscher, Todd D. Ringler, David M. Lawrence, A. Park Williams, Craig D. Allen, Allison L. Steiner, D. Michael Cai, and Nate G. McDowell

Abstract

Rapid and broad-scale forest mortality associated with recent droughts, rising temperature, and insect outbreaks has been observed over western North America (NA). Climate models project additional future warming and increasing drought and water stress for this region. To assess future potential changes in vegetation distributions in western NA, the Community Earth System Model (CESM) coupled with its Dynamic Global Vegetation Model (DGVM) was used under the future A2 emissions scenario. To better span uncertainties in future climate, eight sea surface temperature (SST) projections provided by phase 3 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3) were employed as boundary conditions. There is a broad consensus among the simulations, despite differences in the simulated climate trajectories across the ensemble, that about half of the needleleaf evergreen tree coverage (from 24% to 11%) will disappear, coincident with a 14% (from 11% to 25%) increase in shrubs and grasses by the end of the twenty-first century in western NA, with most of the change occurring over the latter half of the twenty-first century. The net impact is a ~6 GtC or about 50% decrease in projected ecosystem carbon storage in this region. The findings suggest a potential for a widespread shift from tree-dominated landscapes to shrub and grass-dominated landscapes in western NA because of future warming and consequent increases in water deficits. These results highlight the need for improved process-based understanding of vegetation dynamics, particularly including mortality and the subsequent incorporation of these mechanisms into earth system models to better quantify the vulnerability of western NA forests under climate change.

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A. Park Williams, Richard Seager, Max Berkelhammer, Alison K. Macalady, Michael A. Crimmins, Thomas W. Swetnam, Anna T. Trugman, Nikolaus Buenning, Natalia Hryniw, Nate G. McDowell, David Noone, Claudia I. Mora, and Thom Rahn

Abstract

In 2011, exceptionally low atmospheric moisture content combined with moderately high temperatures to produce a record-high vapor pressure deficit (VPD) in the southwestern United States (SW). These conditions combined with record-low cold-season precipitation to cause widespread drought and extreme wildfires. Although interannual VPD variability is generally dominated by temperature, high VPD in 2011 was also driven by a lack of atmospheric moisture. The May–July 2011 dewpoint in the SW was 4.5 standard deviations below the long-term mean. Lack of atmospheric moisture was promoted by already very dry soils and amplified by a strong ocean-to-continent sea level pressure gradient and upper-level convergence that drove dry northerly winds and subsidence upwind of and over the SW. Subsidence drove divergence of rapid and dry surface winds over the SW, suppressing southerly moisture imports and removing moisture from already dry soils. Model projections developed for the fifth phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) suggest that by the 2050s warming trends will cause mean warm-season VPD to be comparable to the record-high VPD observed in 2011. CMIP5 projections also suggest increased interannual variability of VPD, independent of trends in background mean levels, as a result of increased variability of dewpoint, temperature, vapor pressure, and saturation vapor pressure. Increased variability in VPD translates to increased probability of 2011-type VPD anomalies, which would be superimposed on ever-greater background VPD levels. Although temperature will continue to be the primary driver of interannual VPD variability, 2011 served as an important reminder that atmospheric moisture content can also drive impactful VPD anomalies.

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