Impacts of climate and insect herbivory on productivity and physiology of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Alaskan boreal forests

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

Climate change is impacting forested ecosystems worldwide, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere where warming has increased at a faster rate than the rest of the globe. As climate warms, trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) is expected to become more successful in northern boreal forests because of its current presence in drier areas of North America. However, large-scale productivity decline of aspen has recently been documented throughout the United States and Canada as a result of drought and insect outbreaks. We used tree ring measurements (basal area increment (BAI) and stable carbon isotopes (δ13C)) and remote sensing indices of vegetation productivity (NDVI) to study the impact of climate and damage by the aspen epidermal leaf miner (Phyllocnistis populiella) on aspen productivity and physiology in interior Alaska. We found that productivity decreased with greater leaf mining and was not sensitive to growing season moisture availability. Although productivity decreased during high leaf mining years, it recovered to pre-outbreak levels during years of low insect damage, suggesting a degree of resilience to P. populiella mining. Climate and leaf mining interacted to influence tree ring δ13C, with greater leaf mining resulting in decreased δ13C when growing season moisture availability was low. We also found that NDVI was negatively associated with leaf mining, and positively correlated with BAI and the δ13C decrease corresponding to mining. This suggests that NDVI is capturing not only variations in productivity, but also changes in physiology associated with P. populiella. Overall, these findings indicate that the indirect effects of P. populiella mining have a larger impact on aspen productivity and physiology than climate under current conditions, and is essential to consider when assessing growth, physiology and NDVI trends in interior Alaska.