Tree Ring Responses to Climate: Drought Stress Signals Decreased Resilience of Northern Boreal Forests
Unprecedented rates of climate change have increased forest stress and mortality worldwide. Previous research in the boreal forest has largely documented negative growth responses to climate in forest species and habitats characteristic of drier conditions, emphasizing the sensitivity of drier or warmer landscape positions to climate warming. Tree growth responses to recent climate warming may signal changes in the susceptibility of forest communities to compositional change and consequently impact a wide range of ecosystem processes and services. In this study, I explored relationships between climate and radial growth of black spruce, a dominant tree species typical of cool and moist habitats in the boreal forests of North America. I assessed how growth-climate responses varied with stand characteristics and landscape position across four different regions in Alaska and Yukon Territory and found widespread negative correlations between growth and temperature. Decreased tree growth in association with increasing temperatures is generally accepted as a signal of temperature induced drought stress. However, variations in tree growth alone do not reveal the physiological mechanisms behind recent changes in tree growth. Thus, I used stable carbon isotopes to test if the changes in growth were due to physiological drought stress. My results highlight the prominence of drought stress in the boreal forest, even for trees located in cool and moist landscape positions. As mature trees might be able to survive in stressful environmental conditions that do not permit successful post-fire recruitment and survival of seedling, drought stress could affect the resilience of the boreal forest ecosystem to disturbance from fire. I assessed drought stress in pre-fire trees and used post-fire forest compositional changes as a proxy for ecosystem resilience. My results suggest that forest stands with the lowest resilience to disturbance are those that experienced the compounding effects of climate induced drought stress and high fire severity. These sites were generally located at warmer and drier landscape positions, suggesting they are less resilient to disturbance than sites in cool and moist locations. I conclude that as temperatures continue to warm, the loss of boreal forest resilience to disturbance from fire will vary in association with environmental heterogeneity across the landscape.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
SupervisorJohnstone, Jill F.
CommitteeTodd, Christopher; Lamb, Eric; Mack, Michelle
Copyright DateMay 2015