Local climatic drivers of changes in phenology at a boreal-temperate ecotone in eastern North America

Abstract

Ecosystems in biogeographical transition zones, or ecotones, tend to be highly sensitive to climate and can provide early indications of future change. To evaluate recent climatic changes and their impacts in a boreal-temperate ecotone in eastern North America, we analyzed ice phenology records (1975–2007) for five lakes in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. We observed rapidly decreasing trends of up to 21 days less ice cover, mostly due to later freeze-up and partially due to earlier break-up. To evaluate the local drivers of these lake ice changes, we modeled ice phenology based on local climate data, derived climatic predictors from the models, and evaluated trends in those predictors to determine which were responsible for observed changes in lake ice. November and December temperature and snow depth consistently predicted ice-in, and recent trends of warming and decreasing snow during these months were consistent with later ice formation. March and April temperature and snow depth consistently predicted ice-out, but the absence of trends in snow depth during these months, despite concurrent warming, resulted in much weaker trends for ice-out. Recent rates of warming in the Adirondacks are among the highest regionally, although with a different seasonality of changes (early winter > late winter) that is consistent with other lake ice records in the surrounding area. Projected future declines in snow cover could create positive feedbacks and accelerate current rates of ice loss due to warming. Climate sensitivity was greatest for the larger lakes in our study, including Wolf Lake, considered one of the most ecologically intact ‘wilderness lakes’ in eastern North America. Our study provides further evidence of climate sensitivity of the boreal-temperate ecotone of eastern North America and points to emergent conservation challenges posed by climate change in legally protected yet vulnerable landscapes like the Adirondack Park.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the many individuals responsible for the lake phenology and climatological datasets at SUNY ESF’s Huntington Wildlife Forest, most notably O. Oja, R. Masters, C. Demers, R. Sage, and M. Mitchell as part of the Adirondack Long-Term Monitoring Program (ALTEMP) at the Adirondack Ecological Center. We also thank K. Arseneau, D. Bishop, J. Wiley, A. Fenton and C. Cummings for their assistance with data analysis and manuscript preparation, and J. Campbell for providing the corrected HWF weather record.

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Correspondence to Colin M. Beier.

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Beier, C.M., Stella, J.C., Dovčiak, M. et al. Local climatic drivers of changes in phenology at a boreal-temperate ecotone in eastern North America. Climatic Change 115, 399–417 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0455-z

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Keywords

  • Snow Depth
  • Adirondack Lake
  • Monthly Climate Variable
  • Wolf Lake
  • December Temperature