Extreme climatic events and vegetation: The role of stabilizing processes

  • Lloret F
  • Escudero A
  • Iriondo J
 et al. 
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Current climatic trends involve both increasing temperatures and climatic variability, with extreme events becoming more frequent. Increasing concern on extreme climatic events has triggered research on vegetation shifts. However, evidences of vegetation shifts resulting from these events are still relatively rare. Empirical evidence supports the existence of stabilizing processes minimizing and counteracting the effects of these events, reinforcing community resilience. We propose a demographic framework to understand this inertia to change based on the balance between adult mortality induced by the event and enhanced recruitment or adult survival after the event. The stabilizing processes potentially contributing to this compensation include attenuation of the adult mortality caused by the event, due to site quality variability, to tolerance, phenotypic variability, and plasticity at population level, and to facilitative interactions. Mortality compensation may also occur by increasing future survival due to beneficial effect on growth and survival of the new conditions derived from global warming and increased climatic variability, to lowered competition resulting from reduced density in affected stands, or to antagonistic release when pathogens or predators are vulnerable to the event or the ongoing climatic conditions. Finally, mortality compensation may appear by enhanced recruitment due to release of competition with established vegetation, for instance as a consequence of gap openings after event-caused mortality, or to the new conditions, which may be more favorable for seedling establishment, or to enhanced mutualistic interactions (pollination, dispersal). There are important challenges imposed by the need of long-term studies, but a research agenda focused on potentially stabilizing processes is well suited to understand the variety of responses, including lack of sudden changes and community inertia that are frequently observed in vegetation under extreme events. This understanding is crucial for the establishment of sound management strategies and actions addressed to improve ecosystem resilience under climate change scenarios.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Climate change
  • Extreme climatic events
  • Forest dieback
  • Plant community resilience
  • Vegetation dynamics

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