Douglas-fir growth in mountain ecosystems: Water limits tree growth from stand to region


Littell, J.S., Peterson, D.L., Tjoelker, M.  2008. Douglas-fir growth in mountain ecosystems: Water limits tree growth from stand to region. Ecological Monographs 78(3): 349-368.


The purpose of this work is to understand the nature of growth-climate relationships for Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) across the climatic dimensions of its niche. We used a combination of biophysically informed sampling (to identify sample sites) and dendroclimatology (to identify growth-climate relationships) along a climate gradient in northwestern United States mountain ecosystems from the western Olympic Peninsula, Washington to the eastern Rocky Mountain Front, Montana. We used a multi-scale sampling strategy that accounted for continentality, physiography, and topography as non-climatic factors that could influence climate and alter tree growth. We developed a network of 124 Douglas-fir tree-ring chronologies and explored growth-climate correlations across the sampled gradients. We considered two different spatial scales of monthly and seasonal climate variables as potential controlling factors on tree growth. Annual radial growth in 60-65% of the plots across the region is significantly correlated with precipitation, drought, or water balance during the late summer prior to growth and the early summer the year of growth. In a few plots, growth is positively correlated with cool-season temperature or negatively correlated with snowpack. Water availability is therefore more commonly limiting to Douglas-fir growth than energy limitations on growing season length. The first principal component derived from the chronologies is significantly correlated with independent drought reconstructions. The sensitivity of Douglas-fir to summer water balance deficit (potential evapotranspiration minus actual evapotranspiration) indicates that increases in April to September temperature without increases in summer precipitation or soil moisture reserves are likely to cause decreases in growth over much of the sampled area, especially east of the Cascade crest. In contrast, Douglas-fir may exhibit growth increases at some higher elevation sites where seasonal photosynthesis is currently limited by growing-season length or low growing-season temperature. Life-history processes such as establishment, growth, and mortality are precursors to changes in biogeography, and measurements of climate effects on those processes can provide early indications of climate-change effects on ecosystems.