Warming increases the sensitivity of seedling growth capacity to rainfall

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Predicting the effects of climate change on trees is critical for understanding the future state of forested ecosystems. Warming air temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are expected to increasingly affect the growth of tree seedlings, which will lead to long-term changes in the composition and productivity of forests. A new study set out to examine whole plant and leaf-level responses to warming and altered precipitation across a single growing season in the northeastern U.S. to study the climatic sensitivity of seedlings of six native tree species.

The research team, including Jeff Dukes (Forestry and Natural Resources and Biological Sciences) conducted a multifactorial climate manipulation experiment using 3 levels of precipitation (ambient, -50% ambient, +50% ambient) crossed with four levels of warming (up to a warming of 4oC) for 6 tree species: red maple, sweet birch, big-toothed aspen, black cherry, red oak, and American elm.  These tree species all have large current and projected ranges that span much of the eastern and midwestern U.S.

The study showed that canopy warming dramatically increases the sensitivity of plant growth to rainfall across all species. Warm, dry conditions consistently reduced seedling growth in four species (red maple, sweet birch, black cherry, and American elm) by affecting leaf production.  Interestingly, these conditions also harmed the other two species but in different ways, increasing either mortality (aspen) or herbivory (red oak). The results suggest that, in the northeastern U.S., dry years in a future warmer environment could have damaging effects on the growth capacity of these early secondary successional forests through species specific effects on leaf production, herbivory, and mortality.

Rodgers, V. L., N. G. Smith, S. S. Hoeppner and J. S. Dukes (2018). Warming increases the sensitivity of seedling growth capacity to rainfall in six temperate deciduous tree species. AOB Plants, 10(1).

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