, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 171–181 | Cite as

Drought response and changing mean sensitivity of European beech close to the dry distribution limit

  • P. WeberEmail author
  • H. Bugmann
  • A. R. Pluess
  • L. Walthert
  • A. Rigling
Original Paper


European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) covers a large area mainly in the colline and montane ranges in Europe, and a drier and warmer climate, as expected for the coming decades, is likely to alter its distribution. So far, an altitudinal shift has been projected using a variety of modelling approaches. However, we lack knowledge about the climatic and edaphic factors that control the growth and competitive behaviour of beech at its dry distribution limit. We applied and further developed dendroecological methods to study the drought response and sensitivity pattern of beech at sites with different moisture regimes. We compared three pairs of sites from different geographical regions near the dry distribution limit of beech in Switzerland, consisting of a dry and mesic site each. Radial growth differed between mesic and dry sites, in that average ring-width at mesic sites was around double the width at dry sites. For the whole study period (1930–2006), the sites with the lowest available soil water capacity (AWC) were found to respond most sensitively to drought. However, in recent years, sites with higher AWC have shown increasing drought sensitivity, i.e. they have responded even more strongly to drought than the dry sites. This change in sensitivity corresponds to a seasonal shift in drought response at mesic sites, with a change in the months showing significant drought response in all three studied regions compared with the past. Even though dry sites generally displayed a larger number of negative pointer years than mesic sites, it appears that the frequency of pointer years has increased at mesic sites, i.e. they have become more sensitive particularly in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Yet, the frequency of pointer years at the dry sites has remained fairly constant. These results indicate that beech trees near their dry distribution limit are adapted to extreme conditions already, while changes in the growth patterns of beech under mesic conditions have to be expected.


Fagus sylvatica Distribution range Dendroecology Drought response Soil moisture Mean sensitivity 



We would like to thank Hannes Suter and Daniel Bernet for their help with sampling and measuring tree cores, as well as Roger Köchli, Marco Walser, Pascal Wiesli and Roger Schürmann for their help with the soil pits. DAYMET climate data were provided by Dirk Schmatz. We are grateful to two anonymous referees who provided valuable comments and to Silvia Dingwall who helped with language editing. This work was funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research (SER) as part of a project within COST Action E52 on beech genetics (SBF grant No. C07.0113), and by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. Weber
    • 1
    Email author
  • H. Bugmann
    • 2
  • A. R. Pluess
    • 3
  • L. Walthert
    • 1
  • A. Rigling
    • 1
  1. 1.Swiss Federal Research Institute WSLBirmensdorfSwitzerland
  2. 2.Forest Ecology, Institute of Terrestrial EcosystemsETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Ecosystem Management, Institute of Terrestrial EcosystemsETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland

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