Groundwater Buffers Impacts of Drought and Thinning in Southern Pine Forests

A long-term forest hydrology monitoring study indicates that periodic severe drought or partial tree thinning does not cause dramatic change in ecosystem water use and productivity. Water shortage during drought is buffered by shallow groundwater storage while thinning promotes water use by remaining trees and regrowth. Maintaining groundwater is critical for intensive forest management under a changing climate in the Atlantic lower coastal plain.

Aerial view of a loblolly pine plantation Pine plantations are a major economic component in the southern United States representing the most intensively managed forests in the world. However, the ecosystem services of these man-made forests are increasingly threatened by climate change and other disturbances. Drought and forest thinning have the potential to alter watershed water balances by reducing water use by trees and, therefore, forest productivity. Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center researchers and partners used advanced techniques including instrumented towers that collect atmospheric data and tree sapflow sensors to continuously monitor forest water use in a loblolly pine plantation on the Atlantic lower coastal plain for over a decade. Results from their study, published in the journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, suggest that severe drought and partial forest thinning had limited impacts on seasonal and annual forest water use in this type of ecosystem due to shallow groundwater that buffered soil water availability. These findings improve understanding of regional forest hydrological processes and project potential effects of forest management and extreme climate on forest water use and productivity.

Pictured: Loblolly pine plantations on the Atlantic lower coastal plain provide important ecosystem services in the southern United States. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Related publications:

External Partners/Collaborators:
North Carolina State University

Contact: Ge Sun, Research Hydrologist,  

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