Inner Alpine conifer response to 20th century drought swings

Abstract

Tree rings from the Alpine area have been widely used to reconstruct variations in summer temperature. In contrast, estimates of changes in the hydrological cycle are rather scarce. In order to detect altitudinal and species-specific patterns of growth responses to anomalous dry and wet conditions, a large network of 53 tree-ring width site chronologies along the Rhone valley (Valais, Switzerland) covering the 1751–2005 period was compiled and analyzed. A total of 1,605 measurement series from four conifer species—pine, larch, spruce, fir—were detrended to allow inter-annual to multi-decadal scale variability to be preserved. Site chronologies were combined to four altitudinal (colline: <800 m asl, sub-montane: 800–1,000 m asl, montane: 1,000–1,450 m asl, sub-alpine: >1,450 m asl) and species-specific mean time-series. These records were compared with temperature, precipitation, and drought (scPDSI) data. Among the altitudinal records, the colline chronologies showed highest correlation with June precipitation and scPDSI (0.5 and 0.7). Altitudinal effects, via control on climatic conditions, were superimposed upon species-specific characteristics in affecting tree growth and response to moisture variations. In particular, species-specific differences affected the significance level of drought response, with decreasing drought sensitivity towards higher elevations. Growth conditions were found to be optimal at ~1,300 m asl, with precipitation/drought limiting tree growth below and temperature above. Common years of extreme drought and low growth for the colline sites occurred in 1921, 1944, 1976, 1992, and 1998. Our results demonstrate the potential of lower elevation conifers for reconstructing long-term changes in Alpine hydro-climate.

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Acknowledgments

We thank F. Schweingruber, F. Kienast, B. Eilmann, and P. Cherubini for providing tree-ring data. A. Verstege, D. Nievergelt, and M. Schmidhalter joint fieldwork. U. B. and D. F. were supported by the EC project Millennium (#017008) and the Swiss SNF project NCCR Climate. P. W. was supported by the Velux foundation. J. L. acknowledges support from the 7th EU Framework program ACQWA (Assessing Climate Impacts on the Quantity and Quality of Water, http://www.acqwa.ch/, # 212250).

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Correspondence to Ulf Büntgen.

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Communicated by C. Ammer.

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Affolter, P., Büntgen, U., Esper, J. et al. Inner Alpine conifer response to 20th century drought swings. Eur J Forest Res 129, 289–298 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10342-009-0327-x

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Keywords

  • Alpine drought
  • Tree-ring width
  • Hydro-climate
  • Dendroclimatology