Improved understanding of tree growth responses to climate is needed to model and predict forest ecosystem responses to current and future climatic variability. We used dendroecological methods to study the effects of climatic variability on radial growth of a subalpine conifer, mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). Tree-ring chronologies were developed for 31 sites, spanning the latitudinal and elevational ranges of mountain hemlock in the Pacific Northwest. Factor analysis was used to identify common patterns of inter-annual growth variability among the chronologies, and correlation and regression analyses were used to identify climatic factors associated with that variability. Factor analysis identified three common growth patterns, representing groups of sites with different climate-growth relationships. At high-elevation and midrange sites in Washington and northern Oregon, growth was negatively correlated with spring snowpack depth, and positively correlated with growth-year summer temperature and the winter Pacific Decadal Oscillation index (PDO). In southern Oregon, growth was negatively correlated with spring snowpack depth and previous summer temperature, and positively correlated with previous summer precipitation. At the low-elevation sites, growth was mostly insensitive to annual climatic variability but displayed sensitivity to decadal variability in the PDO opposite to that found at high-elevation sites. Mountain hemlock growth appears to be limited by late snowmelt, short growing seasons, and cool summer temperatures throughout much of its range in the Pacific Northwest. Earlier snowmelt, higher summer temperatures, and lower summer precipitation in southern Oregon produce conditions under which growth is limited by summer temperature and/or soil water availability. Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations could produce warmer temperatures and reduced snowpack depths in the next century. Such changes would likely increase mountain hemlock growth and productivity throughout much of its range in Washington and northern Oregon. Increased summer drought stress and reduced productivity would be likely, however, in mountain hemlock forests of southern Oregon and near the species lower elevation limit at some sites.
Additional publication details
Mountain hemlock growth responds to climatic variability at annual and decadal time scales