Satellite-derived Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a proxy of vegetation productivity, is known to be correlated with temperature in northern ecosystems. This relationship, however, may change over time following alternations in other environmental factors. Here we show that above 30°N, the strength of the relationship between the interannual variability of growing season NDVI and temperature (partial correlation coefficient RNDVI-GT) declined substantially between 1982 and 2011. This decrease in RNDVI-GT is mainly observed in temperate and arctic ecosystems, and is also partly reproduced by process-based ecosystem model results. In the temperate ecosystem, the decrease in RNDVI-GT coincides with an increase in drought. In the arctic ecosystem, it may be related to a nonlinear response of photosynthesis to temperature, increase of hot extreme days and shrub expansion over grass-dominated tundra. Our results caution the use of results from interannual time scales to constrain the decadal response of plants to ongoing warming.

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This study was supported by a Strategic Priority Research Program (B) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No.XDB03030404), the National Basic Research Program of China (grant number 2013CB956303), Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection Grant (201209031), National Natural Science Foundation of China (41125004 and 31321061) and the 111 Project(B14001). J.M. and X.S. are supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-BATTELLE for DOE under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725.

Author information


  1. Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Nan Cong
    •  & Tao Wang
  2. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Huijuan Nan
    • , Shushi Peng
    • , Guodong Yin
    • , Xuhui Wang
    •  & Zhenzhong Zeng
  3. CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Sciences,Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
  4. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Benson Lane, Wallingford OX10 8BB, UK

    • Chris Huntingford
  5. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, CEA CNRS UVSQ, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
    • , Shushi Peng
    • , Philippe Peylin
    • , Ben Poulter
    • , Nicolas Viovy
    •  & Tao Wang
  6. College of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  7. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • Stephen Sitch
  8. Department of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Lund University, Sölvegatan 12, SE–223 62 Lund, Sweden

    • Anders Ahlström
  9. Global Carbon Project, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Ocean and Atmospheric Flagship, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  10. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorada 80301, USA

    • Sam Levis
  11. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Bush Estate, Penicuik, Midlothian EH26 0QB, UK

    • Peter E. Levy
  12. State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100093, China

    • Lingli Liu
  13. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Mark R. Lomas
  14. Climate Change Science Institute and Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Jiafu Mao
    •  & Xiaoying Shi
  15. Department of Geography and Environment, Boston University, 675 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  16. Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, P.O. Box 10 01 64, 07701 Jena, Germany

    • Soenke Zaehle
  17. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Ning Zeng
  18. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Anping Chen


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S. Piao designed research; H.J.N. and S. Peng performed analysis and calculations; and S. Piao, C.H., P.C., J.G.C. and A.P.C. mainly wrote the manuscript; R.M. provided remotely sensed NDVI data; P.F., S.S., A.A., S.L., P.E.L., M.R.L., P.P., B.P., N.V., S.Z. and N.Z. provided model results; all authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shilong Piao.

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