A higher frequency of increasingly severe droughts highlights the need for short-term measures to adapt existing forests to climate change. The maintenance of reduced stand densities has been proposed as a promising silvicultural tool for mitigating drought stress. However, the relationship between stand density and tree drought susceptibility remains poorly understood, especially across ecological gradients. Here, we analysed the effect of reduced stand density on tree growth and growth sensitivity, as well as on short-term drought responses (resistance, recovery, and resilience) of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris
L.), sessile oak (Quercus petraea
(Matt.) Liebl.), and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa
Douglas ex C. Lawson). Tree ring series from 409 trees, growing in stands of varying stand density, were analysed at sites with different water availability. For all species, mean tree growth was significantly higher under low compared with maximum stand density. Mean tree growth sensitivity of Scots pine was significantly higher under low compared with moderate and maximum stand density, while growth sensitivity of ponderosa pine peaked under maximum stand density. Recovery and resilience of Scots pine, as well as recovery of sessile oak and ponderosa pine, decreased with increasing stand density. In contrast, resistance and resilience of ponderosa pine significantly increased with increasing stand density. Higher site water availability was associated with significantly reduced drought response indices of Scots pine and sessile oak in general, except for resistance of oak. In ponderosa pine, higher site water availability significantly lessened recovery. Higher site water availability significantly moderated the positive effect of reduced stand density on drought responses. Stand age had a significantly positive effect on the resistance of Scots pine and a negative effect on recovery of sessile oak. We discuss potential causes for the observed response patterns, derive implications for adaptive forest management, and make recommendations for further research in this field.
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