On the declining relationship between tree growth and climate in the Midwest United States: the fading drought signal

Abstract

Tree rings are widely considered to be a reliable proxy record of variations in climate and soil moisture. Here, using data from the Midwest United States (US), we provide documentation of a deteriorating relationship between radial tree growth and drought that is consistent across multiple species and locations. We find that traditional methods for drought reconstructions produce models that have rapidly declining validation statistics in recent decades. Split-sample calibration-verification that uses the first and second halves of the record can be problematic, as those two samples may not represent a sufficiently wide range of soil moisture conditions. To investigate this problem, we develop a randomized validation procedure that generates an empirical distribution of calibration and validation statistics. We place validation statistics derived from traditional methods in the generated distribution and compare them to a stratified approach that ensures each calibration model is composed of a sample that includes both dry and wet years. We find that the deteriorating relationship between tree growth and soil moisture is an artifact of the absence of drought over an extended period of time. A model that forces each calibration period to contain extreme drought years is statistically validated.. Nonetheless, if the current pluvial continues in the Midwest US, the linear relationship between tree rings and soil moisture will likely continue to deteriorate to the point where tree rings in the region will have a reduced ability to estimate past drought conditions.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Dale Weigel at the U.S. Forest Service, personnel at the Indiana Division of Natural Resources Division of Nature Preserves, and the Nature Conservancy, and Dr. Matthew Therrell for assistance to access our study sites. Thanks to James Dickens, Trevis Matheus, Kayla Pendergrass, Karly Schmidt, Matthew Wenzel, Nicolas Batchos, and Luke Wylie for field assistance and Kayla Pendergrass for lab assistance. We also are grateful to Dr. Stockton Maxwell, Dr. Bryan Black, and Dr. Evan Larson for thoughtful discussions that improved this manuscript. Lastly, we thank three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and Dr. Michael Mastrandrea for organizational advice.

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Correspondence to Justin T. Maxwell.

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Maxwell, J.T., Harley, G.L. & Robeson, S.M. On the declining relationship between tree growth and climate in the Midwest United States: the fading drought signal. Climatic Change 138, 127–142 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-016-1720-3

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Keywords

  • Tree Growth
  • Tree Ring
  • Validation Statistic
  • Extreme Drought
  • Standardize Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index