Soil moisture response to seasonal drought conditions and post-thinning forest structure

Adam Belmonte, Temuulen Ts. Sankey, Joel Biederman, John B. Bradford, Thomas Kolb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Prolonged drought conditions in semi-arid forests can lead to widespread vegetation stress and mortality. However, the distribution of these effects is not spatially uniform. We measured soil water potential at high spatial and temporal resolution using 112 sensors distributed across a ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona, USA, during two abnormally dry years with below-average total precipitation. We used the data to assess the effects of fore-summer drought period on the timing, magnitude, and extent of drying throughout the top 100 cm of the soil profile. Additionally, we use high spatial resolution terrestrial lidar measurements of forest structure to develop relationships between soil drying and fine-scale forest structure. We find that increasing drought from 2019 to 2020 caused significantly earlier onset of soil dying at all depths (25, 50 and 100 cm) and more days below a critical drying threshold for ponderosa pine. Additionally, our results show that significantly drier soils are found in areas with higher stand-level basal area, canopy cover and tree density, and shorter trees. Our results from the unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution data suggest that tailored restoration thinning with specific tree density and size parameters can be used to increase and prolong the availability of deep soil water to trees during drought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2406
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2022


  • drought
  • forest health
  • forest moisture
  • forest mortality
  • forest thinning
  • lidar
  • soil moisture sensors
  • soil water potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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