Legacies of La Niña: North American monsoon can rescue trees from winter drought

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

While we often assume tree growth?climate relationships are time-invariant, impacts of climate phenomena such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the North American Monsoon (NAM) may challenge this assumption. To test this assumption, we grouped ring widths (1900-present) in three southwestern US conifers into La Niña periods (LNP) and other years (OY). The 4 years following each La Niña year are included in LNP, and despite 1-2 year growth declines, compensatory adjustments in tree growth responses result in essentially equal mean growth in LNP and OY, as average growth exceeds OY means 2-4 years after La Niña events. We found this arises because growth responses in the two periods are not interchangeable: Due to differences in growth?climate sensitivities and climatic memory, parameters representing LNP growth fail to predict OY growth and vice versa (decreases in R2 up to 0.63; lowest R2 = 0.06). Temporal relationships between growth and antecedent climate (memory) show warmer springs and longer growing seasons negatively impact growth following dry La Niña winters, but that NAM moisture can rescue trees after these events. Increased importance of monsoonal precipitation during LNP is key, as the largest La Niña-related precipitation deficits and monsoonal precipitation contributions both occur in the southern part of the region. Decreases in first order autocorrelation during LNP were largest in the heart of the monsoon region, reflecting both the greatest initial growth declines and the largest recovery. Understanding the unique climatic controls on growth in Southwest conifers requires consideration of both the influences and interactions of drought, ENSO, and NAM, each of which is likely to change with continued warming. While plasticity of growth sensitivity and memory has allowed relatively quick recovery in the tree-ring record, recent widespread mortality events suggest conditions may soon exceed the capacity for adjustment in current populations.