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Competition for Water and Light in Closed-Canopy Forests: A Tractable Model of Carbon Allocation with Implications for Carbon Sinks

The dependence of forest productivity and community composition on rainfall is the result of complex interactions at multiple scales, from the physiology of carbon gain and water loss to competition among individuals and species. In an effort to understand the role of these multiscale interactions in the dependence of forest structure on rainfall, we build a tractable model of individual plant competition for water and light. With game-theoretic analyses, we predict the dominant plant allocation strategy, forest productivity, and carbon storage. We find that the amount and timing of rainfall are critical to forest structure. Comparing two forests that differ only in the total time plants spend in water saturation, the model predicts that the wetter forest has fewer fine roots, more leaves, and more woody biomass than the drier forest. In contrast, if two forests differ only in the amount of water available during water limitation, the model predicts that the wetter forest has more fine roots than the drier forest and equivalent leaves and woody biomass. The difference in these responses to increases in water availability has significant implications for potential carbon sinks with rising atmospheric CO2. We predict that enhanced productivity from increased leaf-level water-use efficiency during water limitation will be allocated to fine roots if plants respond competitively, producing only a small and short-lived carbon sink.