Drought stress has induced dieback episodes affecting many forest types and tree species worldwide. However, there is scarce information regarding drought-triggered growth decline and canopy dieback in Mediterranean deciduous oaks. These species face summer drought but have to form new foliage every spring which can make them vulnerable to hotter and drier conditions during that season. Here, we investigated two stands dominated by Quercus frainetto
Ten. and Quercus canariensis
Willd. and situated in southern Italy and Spain, respectively, showing drought-induced dieback since the 2000s. We analyzed how radial growth and its responses to climate differed between non-declining (ND) and declining (D) trees, showing different crown defoliation and coexisting in each stand by: (i) characterizing growth variability and its responsiveness to climate and drought through time, and (ii) simulating growth responses to soil moisture and temperature thresholds using the Vaganov–Shashkin VS-lite model. Our results show how growth responsiveness to climate and drought was higher in D trees for both oak species. Growth has become increasingly limited by warmer-drier climate and decreasing soil moisture availability since the 1990s. These conditions preceded growth drops in D trees indicating they were more vulnerable to warming and aridification trends. Extremely warm and dry conditions during the early growing season trigger dieback. Changes in the seasonal timing of water limitations caused contrasting effects on long-term growth trends of D trees after the 1980s in Q. frainetto
and during the 1990s in Q. canariensis
. Using growth models allows identifying early-warning signals of vulnerability, which can be compared with shifts in the growth responses to warmer and drier conditions. Our approach facilitates establishing drought-vulnerability thresholds by combining growth models with field records of dieback.
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