Climate change is shifting the phenological cycles of plants1, thereby altering the functioning of ecosystems, which in turn induces feedbacks to the climate system2. In northern (north of 30° N) ecosystems, warmer springs lead generally to an earlier onset of the growing season3,4 and increased ecosystem productivity early in the season5. In situ6 and regional7,8,9 studies also provide evidence for lagged effects of spring warmth on plant productivity during the subsequent summer and autumn. However, our current understanding of these lagged effects, including their direction (beneficial or adverse) and geographic distribution, is still very limited. Here we analyse satellite, field-based and modelled data for the period 1982–2011 and show that there are widespread and contrasting lagged productivity responses to spring warmth across northern ecosystems. On the basis of the observational data, we find that roughly 15 per cent of the total study area of about 41 million square kilometres exhibits adverse lagged effects and that roughly 5 per cent of the total study area exhibits beneficial lagged effects. By contrast, current-generation terrestrial carbon-cycle models predict much lower areal fractions of adverse lagged effects (ranging from 1 to 14 per cent) and much higher areal fractions of beneficial lagged effects (ranging from 9 to 54 per cent). We find that elevation and seasonal precipitation patterns largely dictate the geographic pattern and direction of the lagged effects. Inadequate consideration in current models of the effects of the seasonal build-up of water stress on seasonal vegetation growth may therefore be able to explain the differences that we found between our observation-constrained estimates and the model-constrained estimates of lagged effects associated with spring warming. Overall, our results suggest that for many northern ecosystems the benefits of warmer springs on growing-season ecosystem productivity are effectively compensated for by the accumulation of seasonal water deficits, despite the fact that northern ecosystems are thought to be largely temperature- and radiation-limited10.
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The satellite NDVI3g data that support the findings of this study were downloaded from http://ecocast.arc.nasa.gov/data/pub/gimms/3g.v0/. The satellite LAI3g data are available from R. B. Myneni (email@example.com) on reasonable request. The LUE-FPAR3g GPP data can be requested from W.K.S. (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the FluxNetG GPP data from M. Jung (email@example.com). The TRENDYv6 data are available from S.S. (firstname.lastname@example.org) on reasonable request.
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M.O. is funded through an EU Marie Curie Integration grant to W.B. M.F. is funded through the TU Wien Wissenschaftspreis 2015, a personal science award to W. Dorigo. V.H.’s contribution is supported through funding from the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program. H.T. is supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFA0604702) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF; 1210360, 1243232). A.D.R. is funded through the Macrosystems Biology Program of the NSF (EF-1702697). This work used eddy covariance data acquired and shared by the FLUXNET community, including the following networks: AmeriFlux, AfriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEuropeIP, CarboItaly, CarboMont, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada, GreenGrass, ICOS, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux-TERN, TCOS-Siberia and USCCC. The ERA-Interim reanalysis data were provided by ECMWF and processed by LSCE. The FLUXNET eddy covariance data processing and harmonization were carried out by the European Fluxes Database Cluster, AmeriFlux Management Project and Fluxdata project of FLUXNET, with the support of the CDIAC and ICOS Ecosystem Thematic Center, and the OzFlux, ChinaFlux and AsiaFlux offices. We thank M. Jung for providing upscaled FLUXNET GPP data.
Nature thanks N. Parazoo and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.