Mechanisms of moisture stress in a mid-latitude temperate forest: Implications for feedforward and feedback controls from an irrigation experiment

Justin C. Pettijohn, Guido D. Salvucci, Nathan G. Phillips, Michael J. Daley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While it is well established that stomata close during moisture stress, strong correlations among environmental (e.g., vapor pressure deficit, soil moisture, air temperature, radiation) and internal (e.g., leaf water potential, sap flow, root-shoot signaling) variables obscure the identification of causal mechanisms from field experiments. Models of stomatal control fitted to field data therefore suffer from ambiguous parameter identification, with multiple acceptable (i.e., nearly optimal) model structures emphasizing different moisture status indicators and different processes. In an effort to minimize these correlations and improve parameter and process identification, we conducted an irrigation experiment on red maples (Acer rubrum L.) at Harvard Forest (summers of 2005 and 2006). Control and irrigated trees experienced similar radiative and boundary layer forcings, but different soil moisture status, and thus presumably different diurnal cycles of internal leaf water potential. Measured soil moisture and atmospheric forcing were used to drive a transient tree hydraulic model that incorporated a Jarvis-type leaf conductance in a Penman-Monteith framework with a Cowan-type (resistance and capacitance) tree hydraulic representation. The leaf conductance model included dependence on both leaf matric potential, ΨL (so-called feedback control) and on vapor pressure deficit, D (so-called feedforward control). Model parameters were estimated by minimizing the error between predicted and measured sap flow. The whole-tree irrigation treatment had the effect of elevating measured transpiration during summer dry-downs, demonstrating the limiting effect that subsurface resistance may have on transpiration during these times of moisture stress. From the best fitted model, we infer that during dry downs, moisture stress manifests itself in an increase of soil resistance with a resulting decrease in ΨL, leading to both feedforward and feedback controls in the control trees, but only feedforward control for the irrigated set. Increases in the sum-of-squares error when individual model components were disabled allow us to reject the following three null hypotheses: (1) the f(D) stress is statistically insignificant (p = 0.01); (2) the f(ΨL) stress is statistically insignificant (p = 0.07); and (3) plant storage capacitance is independent of moisture status (p = 0.07).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)968-978
Number of pages11
JournalEcological Modelling
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 10 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Harvard Forest
  • Moisture stress
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum L.)
  • Stomatal conductance
  • Transpiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modeling


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