Forest ecosystems play a central role in global water and carbon cycles, yet the impact of global climate change, in particular drought, on trees and forests is poorly understood. Therefore, there is an urgent need for forest-scale experiments in improving our understanding of trees’ responses to extreme drought events and subsequent recovery under field conditions. Here, we present the design and efficacy of a novel throughfall exclusion experiment with retractable roofs in a mature forest allowing for flexible drought and recovery periods. A total of 12 plots (144 ± 26 m on average) with 3–7 European beech and Norway spruce trees each were established by root trenching to a depth of one meter, four years prior to the experiment. Subsequent installation of roofs (n = 6) allowed for the removal of throughfall precipitation and almost a complete non-availability of soil water in the upper 70 cm during five subsequent growing seasons, that is, 2014–2018. This reduction in available soil water resulted in pre-dawn leaf water potentials down to −1.8 MPa in mature trees. Stem diameter growth decreased by 30% in beech and 70% in spruce, and fine root abundance was reduced by 57% in beech and 73% in spruce compared with controls. After only one growing season, the mycorrhizal community composition changed in response to drought. Careful watering of hydrophobic forest soils in early summer of 2019 resulted in recovered pre-dawn leaf water potentials of drought-stressed trees within one week. Recovery of stem diameter growth, however, did not occur within the same growing season and remained reduced by 33% in beech and 69% in spruce compared with controls. The implemented throughfall exclusion system imposed recurrent seasonal drought events on a mature beech/spruce forest with high efficacy. Shifts in community composition of mycorrhizae in parallel to tree growth decline advocate for a more holistic view on forest-scale drought and watering experiments, particularly in light of more frequently predicted drought events in future. The perennial nature of mature trees and their subsequent slow recovery from drought, that is, over multiple growing seasons, argues for more long-term experiments that span several years.
FörderungenBayerische Staatsforsten German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) Food, Agriculture and Forestry (BayKROOF) Bavarian State Ministries of the Environment and Consumer Protection German Research Foundation (DFG)