Warming is projected to increase the productivity of northern ecosystems. However, knowledge on whether the northward displacement of vegetation productivity isolines matches that of temperature isolines is still limited. Here we compared changes in the spatial patterns of vegetation productivity and temperature using the velocity of change concept, which expresses these two variables in the same unit of displacement per time. We show that across northern regions (>50° N), the average velocity of change in growing-season normalized difference vegetation index (NDVIGS, an indicator of vegetation productivity; 2.8 ± 1.1 km yr−1) is lower than that of growing-season mean temperature (T GS; 5.4 ± 1.0 km yr−1). In fact, the NDVIGS velocity was less than half of the T GS velocity in more than half of the study area, indicating that the northward movement of productivity isolines is much slower than that of temperature isolines across the majority of northern regions (about 80% of the area showed faster changes in temperature than productivity isolines). We tentatively attribute this mismatch between the velocities of productivity and temperature to the effects of limited resource availability and vegetation acclimation mechanisms. Analyses of ecosystem model simulations further suggested that limited nitrogen availability is a crucial obstacle for vegetation to track the warming trend.

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This study was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China (41530528), and the 111 Project (B14001). I.A.J., P.C. and J.P. were supported by the European Research Council Synergy grant SyG-2013-610028 IMBALANCE-P.

Author information


  1. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing, 100871, China

    • Mengtian Huang
    • , Shilong Piao
    • , Zaichun Zhu
    • , Donghai Wu
    • , Philippe Ciais
    • , Shushi Peng
    •  & Hui Yang
  2. Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    •  & Tao Wang
  3. Center for Excellence in Tibetan Earth Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    •  & Tao Wang
  4. Centre of Excellence GCE (Global Change Ecology), Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, B-2610, Wilrijk, Belgium

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

    • Philippe Ciais
    •  & Marc Peaucelle
  6. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, MA, 02215, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  7. CREAF, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Barcelona, 08193, Catalonia, Spain

    • Marc Peaucelle
    •  & Josep Peñuelas
  8. CSIC, Global Ecology Unit CREAF-CSIC-UAB, Bellaterra, Barcelona, 08193, Catalonia, Spain

    • Josep Peñuelas


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S.Pi. designed research; M.H. performed analysis; and all authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Shilong Piao.

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