Tropical forests are approaching critical temperature thresholds

  • Christopher Doughty (Creator)
  • Kristine Y. Crous (Creator)
  • Camilo Rey-Sanchez (Creator)
  • Kelsey R. Carter (Creator)
  • Sophie Fauset (Creator)



The critical temperature beyond which photosynthetic machinery in tropical trees begins to fail averages ~46.7°C (Tcrit) 1. However, it remains unclear whether leaf temperatures experienced by tropical vegetation approach this threshold or soon will under climate change. We found that pantropical canopy temperatures independently triangulated from individual leaf thermocouples, pyrgeometers, and remote sensing (ECOSTRESS) have midday-peak temperatures of ~34°C during dry periods, with a long high-temperature tail that can exceed 40°C. Leaf thermocouple data from multiple sites across the tropics suggest that even within pixels of moderate temperatures, upper-canopy leaves exceed Tcrit 0.01% of the time. Further, upper-canopy leaf warming experiments (+2, 3, and 4°C in Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Australia) increased leaf temperatures non-linearly with peak leaf temperatures exceeding Tcrit 1.3% of the time (11% >43.5°C, 0.3% >49.9°C). Using an empirical model incorporating these dynamics (validated with warming experiment data), we found that tropical forests can withstand up to a 3.9 ± 0.5 °C increase in air temperatures before a potential collapse in metabolic function, but the remaining uncertainty in our understanding of Tcrit could reduce this to 2.6 ± 0.6°C. The 4.0°C estimate is within the “worst case scenario” (RCP-8.5) of climate change predictions2 for tropical forests and therefore it is still within our power to decide (e.g., by not taking the RCP 8.5 route) the fate of these critical realms of carbon, water, and biodiversity 3,4.
Date made availableMay 17 2023

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