Recent trends in Inner Asian forest dynamics to temperature and precipitation indicate high sensitivity to climate change

Poulter, Benjamin; Pederson, Neil; Liu, Hongyan; Zhu, Zaichun; D'Arrigo, Rosanne Dorothy; Ciais, Philippe; Davi, Nicole K.; Frank, David; Leland, Caroline Wogan; Myeni, Ranga; Piao, Shilong; Wang, Tao

Semi-arid ecosystems play an important role in regulating global climate with the fate of these ecosystems in the Anthropocene depending upon interactions among temperature, precipitation, and CO₂. However, in cool-arid environments, precipitation is not the only limitation to forest productivity. Interactions between changes in precipitation and air temperature may enhance soil moisture stress while simultaneously extending growing season length, with unclear consequences for net carbon uptake. This study evaluates recent trends in productivity and phenology of Inner Asian forests (in Mongolia and Northern China) using satellite remote sensing, dendrochronology, and dynamic global vegetation model (DGVM) simulations to quantify the sensitivity of forest dynamics to decadal climate variability and trends. Trends in photosynthetically active radiation fraction (FPAR) between 1982 and 2010 show a greening of about 7% of the region in spring (March, April, May), and 3% of the area ‘browning’ during summertime (June, July, August). These satellite observations of FPAR are corroborated by trends in NPP simulated by the LPJ DGVM. Spring greening trends in FPAR are mainly explained by long-term trends in precipitation whereas summer browning trends are correlated with decreasing precipitation. Tree ring data from 25 sites confirm annual growth increments are mainly limited by summer precipitation (June, July, August) in Mongolia, and spring precipitation in northern China (March, April, May), with relatively weak prior-year lag effects. An ensemble of climate projections from the IPCC CMIP3 models indicates that warming temperatures (spring, summer) are expected to be associated with higher summer precipitation, which combined with CO₂ causes large increases in NPP and possibly even greater forest cover in the Mongolian steppe. In the absence of a strong direct CO₂ fertilization effect on plant growth (e.g., due to nutrient limitation), water stress or decreased carbon gain from higher autotrophic respiration results in decreased productivity and loss of forest cover. The fate of these semi-arid ecosystems thus appears to hinge upon the magnitude and subtleties of CO₂ fertilization effects, for which experimental observations in arid systems are needed to test and refine vegetation models.

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Agricultural and Forest Meteorology

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