Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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Communicating climate change

5 06 2018

Both the uncertainty inherent in scientific data, and the honesty of those scientists who report such data to any given audience, can sow doubt about the science of climate change. The perception of this duality is engrained in how the human mind works. We illustrate this through a personal experience connecting with global environmentalism, and synthesise some guidelines to communicate the science of climate disruption by humans.

EskimoTote_English

Courtesy of Toté (www.elcomic.es)

In January 2017, the Spanish environmental magazine Quercus invited us to give a talk, at the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid, about our article on the effects of climate change on the feeding ecology of polar bears, which made to Quercuscover in February 2017 (1) — see blog post here. During questions and debate with the audience (comprising both scientists and non-scientists), we displayed a graph illustrating combinations of seven sources of energy (coal, water, gas, nuclear, biomass, sun and wind) necessary to meet human society’s global energy needs according to Barry Brook & Corey Bradshaw (2). That paper supports the idea that nuclear energy, and to a lesser extent wind energy, offer the best cost-benefit ratios for the conservation of biodiversity after accounting for factors intimately related to energy production, such as land use, waste and climate change.

While discussing this scientific result, one member of the audience made the blunt statement that it was normal that a couple of Australian researchers supported nuclear energy since Australia hosts the largest uranium reservoirs worldwide (~1/3 of the total). The collective membership of Quercus and the Cabinet of Natural History is not suspicious of lack of awareness of environmental problems, but a different matter is that individuals can of course evaluate a piece of information through his/her own and legitimate perspective.

The stigma of hypocrisy

Indeed, when we humans receive and assimilate a piece of information, our (often not self-conscious) approach can range from focusing on the data being presented to questioning potential hidden agendas by the informer. However, the latter can lead to a psychological trap that has been assessed recently (3) — see simple-language summary of that assessment in The New York Times. In one of five experiments, a total of 451 respondents were asked to rank their opinion about four consecutive vignettes tracking the conversation between two hypothetical individuals (Becky & Amanda) who had a common friend. During this conversation, Amanda states that their friend is pirating music from the Internet, and Becky (who also illegally downloads music) can hypothetically give three alternative answers: Read the rest of this entry »