CORVALLIS, Ore. Contrary to expectations, researchers have discovered that the conifers of the Pacific Northwest, some of the tallest trees in the world, face their greatest water stress during the region's eternally wet winters, not the dog days of August when weeks can pass without rain.
Due to freeze-thaw cycles in winter, water flow is disrupted when air bubbles form in the conductive xylem of the trees. Because of that, some of these tall conifers are seriously stressed for water when they are practically standing in a lake of it, scientists from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service concluded in a recent study.
It's not "drought stress" in a traditional sense, the researchers said, but the end result is similar. Trees such as Douglas-fir actually do better dealing with water issues during summer when they simply close down their stomata, conserve water and reduce their photosynthesis and growth rate.
"Everyone thinks that summer is the most stressful season for these trees, but in terms of water, winter can be even more stressful," said Katherine McCulloh, a research assistant professor in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society.
"We've seen trees in standing water, at a site that gets more than two meters of rain a year, yet the xylem in the small branches at the tops of these trees can't transport as much water as during the summer," McCulloh said.
The ease with which water moves through wood is measured as the "hydraulic conductivity," and researchers generally had believed this conductivity would be the lowest during a conventional drought in the middle of summer. They found that wasn't the case.
"We thought if there was a serious decline in conductivity it would have been from drought," said Rick Meinzer, a researcher with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service, as well as OSU. "It was known that air bubbles could form as increased tension is
|Contact: Kate McCulloh|
Oregon State University