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
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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 >1000 km gradient in northwestern North America. Functionally important xylem anatomical traits (lumen area, cellwall 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 moisturedriven 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.