Declining carbohydrate content of Sitka-spruce trees dying from seawater exposure


Increasing sea levels associated with climate change threaten the survival of coastal forests, yet the mechanisms by which seawater exposure causes tree death remain poorly understood. Despite the potentially crucial role of nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) reserves in tree survival, their dynamics in the process of death under seawater exposure are unknown. Here we monitored progressive tree mortality and associated NSC storage in Sitka-spruce (Picea sitchensis) trees dying under ecosystem-scale increases in seawater exposure in western Washington, USA. All trees exposed to seawater, because of monthly tidal intrusion, experienced declining crown foliage during the sampling period, and individuals with a lower percentage of live foliated crown (PLFC) died faster. Tree PLFC was strongly correlated with subsurface salinity and needle ion contents. Total NSC concentrations in trees declined remarkably with crown decline, and reached extremely low levels at tree death (2.4% and 1.6% in leaves and branches, respectively, and 0.4% in stems and roots). Starch in all tissues was almost completely consumed, while sugars remained at a homeostatic level in foliage. The decreasing NSC with closer proximity to death and near zero starch at death are evidences that carbon starvation occurred during Sitka-spruce mortality during seawater exposure. Our results highlight the importance of carbon storage as an indicator of tree mortality risks under seawater exposure.

Plant Physiology, Kiab002