Large trees in the tropics are reportedly more vulnerable to droughts than their smaller neighbours. This pattern is of interest due to what it portends for forest structure, timber production, carbon sequestration and multiple other values given that intensified El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events are expected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Amazon region. What remains unclear is what characteristics of large trees render them especially vulnerable to drought-induced mortality and how this vulnerability changes with forest degradation. Using a large-scale, long-term silvicultural experiment in a transitional Amazonian forest in Bolivia, we disentangle the effects of stem diameter, tree height, crown exposure and logging-induced degradation on risks of drought-induced mortality during the 2004/2005 ENSO event. Overall, tree mortality increased in response to drought in both logged and unlogged plots. Tree height was a much stronger predictor of mortality than stem diameter. In unlogged plots, tree height but not crown exposure was positively associated with drought-induced mortality, whereas in logged plots, neither tree height nor crown exposure was associated with drought-induced mortality. Our results suggest that, at the scale of a site, hydraulic factors related to tree height, not air humidity, are a cause of elevated drought-induced mortality of large trees in unlogged plots.
This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘The impact of the 2015/2016 El Niño on the terrestrial tropical carbon cycle: patterns, mechanisms and implications'.