Moisture-driven shift in the climate sensitivity of white spruce xylem anatomical traits is coupled to large-scale oscillation patterns across northern treeline in northwest North America
Pisaric, Michael F.J.
Porter, Trevor J.
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Tree growth at northern treelines is generally temperature‐limited due to cold and short growing seasons. However, temperature‐induced drought stress was repeatedly reported for certain regions of the boreal forest in northwestern North America, provoked by a significant increase in temperature and possibly reinforced by a regime shift of the Pacific decadal oscillation (PDO). The aim of this study is to better understand physiological growth reactions of white spruce, a dominant species of the North American boreal forest, to PDO regime shifts using quantitative wood anatomy and traditional tree‐ring width analysis. We investigated white spruce growth at latitudinal treeline across a > 1,000 km gradient in northwestern North America. Functionally important xylem anatomical traits (lumen area, cell‐wall thickness, cell number) and tree‐ring width were correlated with the drought‐sensitive standardized precipitation‐evapotranspiration index (SPEI) of the growing season. Correlations were computed separately for complete phases of the PDO in the 20th century, representing alternating warm/dry (1925–1946), cool/wet (1947–1976) and again warm/dry (1977–1998) climate regimes. Xylem anatomical traits revealed water‐limiting conditions in both warm/dry PDO regimes, while no or spatially contrasting associations were found for the cool/wet regime, indicating a moisture‐driven shift in growth‐limiting factors between PDO periods. Tree‐ring width reflected only the last shift of 1976/77, suggesting different climate thresholds and a higher sensitivity to moisture availability of xylem anatomical traits compared to tree‐ring width. This high sensitivity of xylem anatomical traits permits to identify first signs of moisture‐driven growth in treeline white spruce at an early stage, suggesting quantitative wood anatomy being a powerful tool to study climate change effects in the northwestern North American treeline ecotone. Projected temperature increase might challenge growth performance of white spruce as a key component of the North American boreal forest biome in the future, when drier conditions are likely to occur with higher frequency and intensity.