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Recent forest diebacks, combined with threats of future drought, focus attention on the extent to which tree death is caused by catastrophic events as opposed to chronic declines in health that accumulate over years. While recent attention has focused on large-scale diebacks, there is concern that increasing drought stress and chronic morbidity may have pervasive impacts on forest composition in many regions. Here we use long-term, whole-stand inventory data from southeastern U.S. forests to show that trees exposed to drought experience multiyear declines in growth prior to mortality. Following a severe, multiyear drought, 72% of trees that did not recover their pre-drought growth rates died within 10 yr. This pattern was mediated by local moisture availability. As an index of morbidity prior to death, we calculated the difference in cumulative growth after drought relative to surviving conspecifics. The strength of drought-induced morbidity varied among species and was correlated with drought tolerance. These findings support the ability of trees to avoid death during drought events but indicate shifts that could occur over decades. Tree mortality following drought is predictable in these ecosystems based on growth declines, highlighting an opportunity to address multiyear drought-induced morbidity in models, experiments, and management decisions.
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