Even modest climate change may lead to major transitions in boreal forests

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The sensitivity of forests to near-term warming and associated precipitation shifts remains uncertain1–9. Herein, using a 5-year open-air experiment in southern boreal forest, we show divergent responses to modest climate alteration among juveniles of nine co-occurring North American tree species. Warming alone (+1.6 °C or +3.1 °C above ambient temperature) or combined with reduced rainfall increased the juvenile mortality of all species, especially boreal conifers. Species differed in growth responses to warming, ranging from enhanced growth in Acer rubrum and Acer saccharum to severe growth reductions in Abies balsamea, Picea glauca and Pinus strobus. Moreover, treatment-induced changes in both photosynthesis and growth help explain treatment-driven changes in survival. Treatments in which species experienced conditions warmer or drier than at their range margins resulted in the most adverse impacts on growth and survival. Species abundant in southern boreal forests had the largest reductions in growth and survival due to climate manipulations. By contrast, temperate species that experienced little mortality and substantial growth enhancement in response to warming are rare throughout southern boreal forest and unlikely to rapidly expand their density and distribution. Therefore, projected climate change will probably cause regeneration failure of currently dominant southern boreal species and, coupled with their slow replacement by temperate species, lead to tree regeneration shortfalls with potential adverse impacts on the health, diversity and ecosystem services of regional forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)540-545
Number of pages6
Issue number7923
StatePublished - Aug 18 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the many field assistants who were involved in implementing and maintaining the experimental facility, the experimental planting and the measurements presented in this paper. This research was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, and Office of Biological and Environmental Research award number DE‐FG02‐07ER64456; Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station MN-42-030 and MN-42-060; the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences and Wilderness Research Foundation, University of Minnesota; and the National Science Foundation, Biological Integration Institutes grant NSF-DBI-2021898.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.

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  • Journal Article


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