A soil water balance shift is driving directional change in northern forests

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 10:35 AM
Adam Michael Erickson1, Craig Nitschke2, Nicholas C Coops1, Steve Cumming3 and Gordon Stenhouse4, (1)University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada, (2)University of Melbourne, Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, Parkville, Australia, (3)Laval University, Department of Wood and Forest Sciences, Quebec City, QC, Canada, (4)Research Scientist and Grizzly Bear Program Lead, Hinton, AB, Canada
Human activities are driving climatic warming and more frequent extreme weather, persistent throughout the recent warming hiatus. The effects of these changes on vegetation phenology remains poorly understood. Forest phenology studies typically focus on the length of the growing season and related changes in carbon uptake. Changes to tree regeneration remain uncertain, yet carry multiple climate feedback pathways. Dominant tree species drive forest biogeochemistry, with species varying in nutrient cycling, soil biota, biogenic volatile organic compound emissions, and productivity under drought, while drought conditions are likely to increase in severity. Regeneration processes underlie forest dynamics, the largest source of biosphere model uncertainty.

We applied a process-based tree germination and establishment model to a study area in western Canada in order to estimate the effects of 20th and 21stcentury climatic change on regeneration in northern forests. We parameterized the model for 21 major tree species using biophysical parameters derived from the literature. We classified daily weather station and soils data for fourteen biogeoclimatic regions within the study area for three historical 30-year periods and the most recent decade: 1923-1952, 1953-1982, 1983-2012, and 2003-2012. We simulated the effects of changing temperature and precipitation conditions on germination and establishment processes for 21 tree species, fourteen regions, and four time periods.

We found that regeneration conditions diminished across the 1923 to 2012 period, driven by soil water limitations. While regeneration conditions improved during the recent warming hiatus, a downward trend persists at a multi-decadal scale. In contrast to studies indicating regenerational improvements in higher latitudes and elevations, with disequilibrium in lowland forests due to a higher velocity of climatic change, we found that a soil water balance shift drove species downhill, supporting a recent study. As the climate continues to warm, we anticipate that changes to disturbance regimes will unlock the lagged regenerational response of northern forests currently in climatic disequilibrium, producing a complex network of climatic feedbacks.