Ecophysiological importance of cloud immersion in a relic spruce–fir forest at elevational limits, southern Appalachian Mountains, USA
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- Berry, Z.C. & Smith, W.K. Oecologia (2013) 173: 637. doi:10.1007/s00442-013-2653-4
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Climate warming predicts changes to the frequency and height of cloud-immersion events in mountain communities. Threatened southern Appalachian spruce–fir forests have been suggested to persist because of frequent periods of cloud immersion. These relic forests exist on only seven mountaintop areas, grow only above ca. 1,500 m elevation (maximum 2,037 m), and harbor the endemic Abies fraseri. To predict future distribution, we examined the ecophysiological effects of cloud immersion on saplings of A. fraseri and Picea rubens at their upper and lower elevational limits. Leaf photosynthesis, conductance, transpiration, xylem water potentials, and general abiotic variables were measured simultaneously on individuals at the top (1,960 m) and bottom (1,510 m) of their elevation limits on numerous clear and cloud-immersed days throughout the growing season. The high elevation sites had 1.5 as many cloud-immersed days (75 % of days) as the low elevation sites (56 % of days). Cloud immersion resulted in higher photosynthesis, leaf conductance, and xylem water potentials, particularly during afternoon measurements. Leaf conductance remained higher throughout the day with corresponding increases in photosynthesis and transpiration, despite low photon flux density levels, leading to an increase in water potentials from morning to afternoon. The endemic A. fraseri had a greater response in carbon gain and water balance in response to cloud immersion. Climate models predict warmer temperatures with a decrease in the frequency of cloud immersion for this region, leading to an environment on these peaks similar to elevations where spruce–fir communities currently do not exist. Because spruce–fir communities may rely on cloud immersion for improved carbon gain and water conservation, an upslope shift is likely if cloud ceilings rise. Their ultimate survival will likely depend on the magnitude of changes in cloud regimes.