To better understand how extreme climate conditions might trigger recruitment failure, Falk and his co-authors examined how five species of 4-year-old trees responded to extended drought and heat.

They found that different species had different levels of drought tolerance and that all species were more tolerant of the heat wave than expected. Their findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.

In general, older trees are more tolerant of tougher conditions, Falk said. But when there are massive die-off events – which can be caused by drought and heat, sometimes with associated insects, pathogens or wildfire – tree populations become dependent on their ability to regenerate.

"When scientists make models about future tree growth based on the conditions an adult tree can tolerate, it might not accurately reflect the future of the forests," Falk said. "That's why we focused on this seedling bottleneck."

The team gathered trees from across five species found at various elevations in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. From lowest elevation to highest, this included ponderosa pine, piñon pine, Englemann spruce, Douglas fir and limber pine. They then exposed the young trees to drought and heat conditions in a growth chamber, which allowed them to precisely control temperature, humidity, light and water.

In the first round of the experiment, the team maintained the normal average temperature for each species and simply stopped watering the plants to test their response to drought conditions.

"About 8 weeks out, pretty much every tree was still dealing with it," Falk said. "But then, as the drought got on to 12 and 14 weeks, the ponderosa pine seedlings started to die, and then the piñon seedlings started to die off, then the Engelmann spruce, and the Douglas fir. The ones that lasted longest, which really surprised us (lasting 36 weeks without water) was limber pine."

"You would think that the species that live at lower, warmer elevations would be more drought adapted than trees living at the higher elevation," Falk said. "But the higher elevation trees – the Douglas fir and limber pine – grow in the coolest temperatures and lived the longest. It appears that the trees are only as drought tolerant as they need to be. As climate change progresses, it will put more stress on the trees, and then there'll probably be selection for those more drought- tolerant traits."

Next, the team simulated an average heat wave by cranking up the temperature by 10 degrees for all species for one week.

As a result, each species died out in the exact same order, and died only slightly sooner.

"These results surprised me in a couple of ways," said co-author and UArizona professor emeritus David Breshears. "First, heat waves do indeed matter, but I expected them to have a larger effect than they did. So, they're important, but the underlying drought and average warming seem to be the key drivers. Second, we found limber pine was the heartiest species and this has important implications for how our landscapes are likely to change."

Read the full article about climate change impact on young trees by Mikayla Mace Kelley at University of Arizona.