Background/Question/Methods Despite great concern for drought-driven forest mortality, the effects of frequent low-intensity droughts have been largely overlooked in the boreal forest because of their negligible impacts over the short term. Understanding forest responses to multiple, sequential droughts of low intensity is essential to accurately predict the effects of climate change on forests. In this study, we used data from 6,876 permanent plots distributed across most of the Canadian boreal zone to assess the effects of repeated low-intensity droughts on forest mortality. Specifically, we compared the relative impact of sequential years under low-intensity dry conditions with the effects of variables related to the intensity of dry conditions, stand characteristics, and local climate. Then, we searched for thresholds in forest mortality as a function of the number of years between two forest surveys affected by dry conditions of any intensity.
Results/Conclusions Our results showed that, in general, frequent low-intensity dry conditions had stronger effects on forest mortality than the intensity of the driest conditions in the plot. Frequent low-intensity dry conditions acted as an inciting factor of forest mortality exacerbated by stand characteristics and environmental conditions. Overall, the mortality of forests dominated by shade-tolerant conifers was significantly and positively related to frequent low-intensity dry conditions, supporting, in some cases, the existence of thresholds delimiting contrasting responses to drought. In mixtures with broadleaf species, however, sequential dry conditions had a negligible impact. The effects of frequent dry conditions on shade-intolerant forests mainly depended on local climate, inciting or mitigating the mortality of forests located in wet places and dominated by broadleaf species or jack pine, respectively. Our results highlight the importance of assessing not only climate-driven extreme events but also repeated disturbances of low intensity. In the long term, the smooth response of forests to dry conditions might abruptly change leading to disproportional mortality triggered by accumulated stress conditions. Forest and wildlife managers should consider the cumulative effects of climate change on mortality to avoid shortfalls in timber and habitat.