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Influence of snowfall and melt timing on tree growth in subarctic Eurasia


The causes of a reduced sensitivity of high-latitude tree growth to variations in summer temperature for recent decades1,2, compared to earlier this century, are unknown. This sensitivity change is problematic, in that relationships between tree-ring properties and temperature are widely used for reconstructing past climate. Here we report an analysis of tree-ring and climate data from the forest–tundra zone, in combination with a mechanistic model of tree-ring growth, to argue that an increasing trend of winter precipitation over the past century in many subarctic regions3,4,5 led to delayed snow melt in these permafrost environments. As a result, the initiation of cambial activity (necessary for the formation of wood cells) has been delayed relative to the pre-1960 period in the Siberian subarctic. Since the early 1960s, less of the growth season has been during what had previously been the period of maximal growth sensitivity to temperature. This shift results not only in slower growth, but also in a reduced correlation between growth and temperature. Our results suggest that changes in winter precipitation should be considered in seeking explanations for observed changes in the timing of the ‘spring greening’ of high-latitude forests6, and should be taken into account in the study of the role of the Siberian subarctic forest in the global carbon cycle.

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Figure 1: Location of sites and meteorological stations.
Figure 2: Correlation of the mean temperature of five consecutive days (‘pentads’) with tree-ring width indices for four sites near the northern timberline.
Figure 3: Meteorological time series.
Figure 4: Tree-ring width dynamics at three sites: (a), SOB; b, NOV; c, INP.


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This work was supported by RFFI, CRDF, the Swiss National Science Fund, and the Earth System History Program of the US NSF.

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Correspondence to M. K. Hughes.

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Vaganov, E., Hughes, M., Kirdyanov, A. et al. Influence of snowfall and melt timing on tree growth in subarctic Eurasia. Nature 400, 149–151 (1999).

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