Climate warming may weaken stabilizing mechanisms in old forests

Plant competition may intensify with climate warming, but whether this will occur equally for conspecific and heterospecific competition remains unknown. Competitive shifts have the potential to instigate community change because the relative strengths of conspecific and heterospecific negative density dependence mediate the stabilizing mechanisms underpinning species coexistence. We examined a mature temperate forest to assess both direct and indirect climate effects at multiple scales: individual species, interspecies relationships, and community stability mechanisms. Our coupled approach (1) quantified tree mortality risk dependence on the interactive effects of competition, climatic water deficit, snowpack, and soil moisture for 28,913 trees over 8 years (3149 mortalities), then (2) used a climate-projection ensemble to forecast changes in conspecific and heterospecific competition from 2020 to 2100. We predict that projected climate warming will destabilize the foundational forest community by increasing the strength of heterospecific competition at a greater rate and to a greater degree than conspecific competition for four of five abundant tree species, particularly on dry microsites. Modeling showed that these findings were most pronounced after the year 2038, at which point snowpacks were projected to be too small to ameliorate the effects of drought on competitive interactions. Our finding that heterospecific competition is more sensitive than conspecific competition to climate warming may indicate the impending loss of ecosystem functioning. We join the growing body of work showing a predominance of indirect drought effects, yet coupled climate models still fail to consider how changing community dynamics may impact forest cover and, in turn, disrupt forest–climate carbon feedbacks. Ecosystems sharing characteristics with our example forest—those with low species richness and therefore a limited biodiversity insurance effect—may be similarly vulnerable to climate-mediated destabilization. In such communities, increased heterospecific competition among even a small number of species can more easily destabilize communities without recourse from redundant species. This study of an overlooked but vital mechanism of community change can be adapted by research in a range of ecosystems to improve the understanding of climate change consequences.

Sara J. Germain & James A. Lutz
Ecological Monographs
Wind River