Letter | Published:

Reduced sensitivity of recent tree-growth to temperature at high northern latitudes

Nature volume 391, pages 678682 (12 February 1998) | Download Citation



Tree-ring chronologies that represent annual changes in the density of wood formed during the late summer can provide a proxy for local summertime air temperature1. Here we undertake an examination of large-regional-scale wood-density/air-temperature relationships using measurements from hundreds of sites at high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. When averaged over large areas of northern America and Eurasia, tree-ring density series display a strong coherence with summer temperature measurements averaged over the same areas, demonstrating the ability of this proxy to portray mean temperature changes over sub-continents and even the whole Northern Hemisphere. During the second half of the twentieth century, the decadal-scale trends in wood density and summer temperatures have increasingly diverged as wood density has progressively fallen. The cause of this increasing insensitivity of wood density to temperature changes is not known, but if it is not taken into account in dendroclimatic reconstructions, past temperatures could be overestimated. Moreover, the recent reduction in the response of trees to air-temperature changes would mean that estimates of future atmospheric CO2 concentrations, based on carbon-cycle models that are uniformly sensitive to high-latitude warming, could be too low.

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We thank P. Nogler, T. Forster, B. Feiertag and E. Schär, WSLFNP, for densitometry and chronology construction, and G. Jacoby and C. Körner for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Swiss Federal Institute of Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the European Community Environment and Climate Programme and the UK NERC.

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  1. *Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • K. R. Briffa
    • , P. D. Jones
    •  & T. J. Osborn
  2. †Swiss Federal Institute of Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Zürcherstrasse 111, CH-8903, Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • F. H. Schweingruber
  3. ‡Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 8 Marta Street, Ekaterinburg 620219, Russia

    • S. G. Shiyatov
  4. §Institute of Forest, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Krasnoyarsk, Russia

    • E. A. Vaganov


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Correspondence to K. R. Briffa.

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