Nav: Home

Climate change is giving old trees a growth spurt

May 09, 2019

WASHINGTON--Larch trees in the permafrost forests of northeastern China--the northernmost tree species on Earth - are growing faster as a result of climate change, according to new research.

A new study of growth rings from Dahurian larch in China's northern forests finds the hardy trees grew more from 2005 to 2014 than in the preceding 40 years. The findings also show the oldest trees have had the biggest growth spurts: Trees older than 400 years grew more rapidly in those 10 years than in the past 300 years, according to the new study.

The study's authors suspect warmer soil temperatures are fueling the growth spurts by lowering the depth of the permafrost layer, allowing the trees' roots to expand and suck up more nutrients.

The increased growth is good for the trees in the short-term but may be disastrous for the forests in the long-term, according to the authors. As the climate continues to warm, the permafrost underneath the trees may eventually degrade and no longer be able to support the slow-growing trees.

No other tree species can survive the permafrost plains this far north, so if the larch forests of northern Asia disappear, the entire ecosystem would change, according to the study's authors.

"The disappearance of larch would be a disaster to the forest ecosystem in this region," said Xianliang Zhang, an ecologist at Shenyang Agricultural University in Shenhang, China, and lead author of the new study in AGU's Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

Earth's hardiest trees

Dahurian larch is Earth's northernmost tree species and its most cold-hardy: These larches are the only trees that can tolerate the frigid permafrost plains of Russia, Mongolia and northern China. Chinese locals refer to Dahurian larch as "thin-old-trees," because they grow slowly in the thin active layer of soil above the permafrost and can live for more than 400 years.

Permafrost regions around the world have been thawing in recent decades due to rising temperatures, sometimes degrading into swamps and wetlands. In the new study, Zhang and his colleagues analyzed growth rings from more than 400 Dahurian larch in old-growth forests of northeastern China, the southernmost portion of the tree's range, to see how the trees are faring in a warming climate.

Tree rings allow scientists to measure how much trees grow from year to year. Much like people, trees do most of their growing while young. Dahurian larch generally grow rapidly until they become around 150 years old, at which point their growth slows. When the trees hit 300 years old, their growth basically stalls.

The researchers used the width of each tree's growth rings to calculate how much area each tree gained in cross-section each year over the course of its lifetime.

The results show Dahurian larch trees grew more from 2005 to 2014 than from 1964 to 2004. Interestingly, the effect was most pronounced in the oldest trees: Trees older than 300 years grew 80 percent more from 2005 to 2014 than in the preceding 40 years. Trees between 250 and 300 years old grew 35 percent more during that time period, while trees younger than 250 years grew between 11 and 13 percent more.

The old trees' growth is unusual - it's akin to a 100-year-old person suddenly getting taller, according to Zhang. The authors suspect older trees are growing more than younger trees because they have more developed root systems that can harvest resources from the soil more efficiently.

The researchers compared the trees' growth rates to climate factors like soil temperatures and precipitation data over the past 50 years to see what was causing the unusual growth. They found increased soil temperatures, especially in winter, are likely powering the growth spurts. They suspect the warmer temperatures lower the depth of the permafrost layer, providing the trees' roots more room to expand and access to more nutrients.

While this initial soil warming has benefitted Dahurian larch, further permafrost thaw could likely decrease tree growth and even cause the forest to decay, according to the authors. Dahurian larch can't survive in wet conditions, so permafrost changing to wetlands or peatlands would be detrimental to the forest as a whole, they said.

"If the larch forest retreat in this region in the future, it is also not a good sign for the whole boreal forest," Zhang said.

While other research has examined the effects of a warming climate on temperature-sensitive trees in North America, the new study examined temperature-sensitive trees in permafrost areas, which have been less widely studied but are a vast component of the boreal forest, said Erika Wise, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the new study. Additionally, previous studies on these larch trees have focused on the effects of air temperature and precipitation, but the new study looked at the influence of ground surface temperatures, which has also not been studied widely, she added.

"Their arguments make a lot of logical sense in terms of why the trees might benefit from the increased winter ground surface temperatures, which is that especially things like an earlier spring thaw could really help trees get growing earlier, more ability to have root activity in the cold months, these sort of things would make sense in why trees would benefit from warmer winters in particular," Wise said.
-end-
Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.'s first net zero energy commercial renovation. We are celebrating our Centennial in 2019. #AGU100

Notes for Journalists

This paper is freely available through May 31. Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) can download a PDF copy of the article by clicking on this link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1029/2018JG004882

Journalists and PIOs may also request a copy of the final paper by emailing Liza Lester at llester@agu.orgllester@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

Paper Title

"Warmer winter ground temperatures trigger rapid growth of Dahurian larch in the permafrost forests of northeast China"

Authors:

Xianlian Zhang, College of Forestry, Shenyang Agricultural University, Shenyang, China and College of Forestry, Hebei Agricultural University, Baoding, China

Xuping Bai and Zhenju Chen, College of Forestry, Shenyang Agricultural University, Shenyang, China

Meiting Hou, China Meteorological Administration Training Centre, China Meteorological Administration, Beijing, China

Rubén D. Manzanedo, Harvard Forest, Harvard University, Petersham, MA, USA and Biology Department, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

AGU press contact:

Liza Lester
+1 (202) 777-7494
llester@agu.orgllester@agu.org

Researcher contacts:

Xianliang Zhang
(+86) 18742456171
zhxianliang@126.comzhxianliang@126.com
Shenyang, China (UTC +8)

Rubén D. Manzanedo
+1 (413) 336-1120
rdmanzanedo@fas.harvard.edurdmanzanedo@fas.harvard.edu
Seattle, Washington (UTC -7)

American Geophysical Union

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
Climate change scientists should think more about sex
Climate change can have a different impact on male and female fish, shellfish and other marine animals, with widespread implications for the future of marine life and the production of seafood.
Climate change prompts Alaska fish to change breeding behavior
A new University of Washington study finds that one of Alaska's most abundant freshwater fish species is altering its breeding patterns in response to climate change, which could impact the ecology of northern lakes that already acutely feel the effects of a changing climate.
Uncertainties related to climate engineering limit its use in curbing climate change
Climate engineering refers to the systematic, large-scale modification of the environment using various climate intervention techniques.
Public holds polarized views about climate change and trust in climate scientists
There are gaping divisions in Americans' views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The psychology behind climate change denial
In a new thesis in psychology, Kirsti Jylhä at Uppsala University has studied the psychology behind climate change denial.

Related Climate Change Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#532 A Class Conversation
This week we take a look at the sociology of class. What factors create and impact class? How do we try and study it? How does class play out differently in different countries like the US and the UK? How does it impact the political system? We talk with Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and coauthor of the book "The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged", about class and its impacts on people and our systems.