Effects of thinning on drought vulnerability and climate response in north temperate forest ecosystems
Reducing tree densities through silvicultural thinning has been widely advocated as a strategy for enhancing resistance and resilience to drought, yet few empirical evaluations of this approach exist. We examined detailed dendrochronological data from a long-term (>50 years) replicated thinning experiment to determine if density reductions conferred greater resistance and/or resilience to droughts, assessed by the magnitude of stand-level growth reductions. Our results suggest that thinning generally enhanced drought resistance and resilience; however, this relationship showed a pronounced reversal over time in stands maintained at lower tree densities. Specifically, lower-density stands exhibited greater resistance and resilience at younger ages (49 years), yet exhibited lower resistance and resilience at older ages (76 years), relative to higher-density stands. We attribute this reversal to significantly greater tree sizes attained within the lower-density stands through stand development, which in turn increased tree-level water demand during the later droughts. Results from response–function analyses indicate that thinning altered growth–climate relationships, such that higher-density stands were more sensitive to growing-season precipitation relative to lower-density stands. These results confirm the potential of density management to moderate drought impacts on growth, and they highlight the importance of accounting for stand structure when predicting climate-change impacts to forests.