The tropical forest carbon sink is known to be drought sensitive, but it is unclear which forests are the most vulnerable to extreme events. Forests with hotter and drier baseline conditions may be protected by prior adaptation, or more vulnerable because they operate closer to physiological limits. Here we report that forests in drier South American climates experienced the greatest impacts of the 2015–2016 El Niño, indicating greater vulnerability to extreme temperatures and drought. The long-term, ground-measured tree-by-tree responses of 123 forest plots across tropical South America show that the biomass carbon sink ceased during the event with carbon balance becoming indistinguishable from zero (−0.02 ± 0.37 Mg C ha−1 per year). However, intact tropical South American forests overall were no more sensitive to the extreme 2015–2016 El Niño than to previous less intense events, remaining a key defence against climate change as long as they are protected.

Springer Science and Business Media LLC
Nature Climate Change

Released under the CC-BY 4.0 ("Attribution 4.0 International") License

Staff publications

Bennett, Amy C., Rodrigues de Sousa, Thaiane, Monteagudo-Mendoza, Abel, Esquivel-Muelbert, Adriane, Morandi, Paulo S., Coelho de Souza, Fernanda, … Phillips, Oliver L. (2023). Sensitivity of South American tropical forests to an extreme climate anomaly. Nature Climate Change, 13(9), 967–974. doi:10.1038/s41558-023-01776-4