Lateral subsurface flow modulates forest mortality risk to future climate and elevated CO2

Xiaonan Tai, Martin D. Venturas, D. Scott Mackay, Paul D. Brooks, Lawrence B. Flanagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Forest mortality has been widely observed across the globe during recent episodes of drought and extreme heat events. But the future of forest mortality remains poorly understood. While the direct effects of future climate and elevated CO2 on forest mortality risk have been studied, the role of lateral subsurface water flow has rarely been considered. Here we demonstrated the fingerprint of lateral flow on the forest mortality risk of a riparian ecosystem using a coupled plant hydraulics-hydrology model prescribed with multiple Earth System Model projections of future hydroclimate. We showed that the anticipated water-saving and drought ameliorating effects of elevated CO2 on mortality risk were largely compromised when lateral hydrological processes were considered. Further, we found lateral flow reduce ecosystem sensitivity to climate variations, by removing soil water excess during wet periods and providing additional water from groundwater storage during dry periods. These findings challenge the prevailing expectation of elevated CO2 to reduce mortality risk and highlight the need to assess the effects of lateral flow exchange more explicitly moving forward with forest mortality projections.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number084015
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Climate change
  • Elevated CO2
  • Forest mortality
  • Mechanistic modeling
  • Stream flow


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