Height growth rate tradeoffs determine northern and southern range limits for trees


  • Craig Loehle

    Corresponding author
    1. Environronmental Research Division, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL 60439, U.S.A.
    • * Present address: National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, 552 G. Washington St., Suite 224, Naperville, IL 60540, U.S.A.

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Abstract. Identifying the biological determinants of range limits of trees is an unsolved problem of critical importance for predicting the effects of climate change on forests. Data showing that many boreal trees can grow in temperate climates indicate that southern range limits do not necessarily result from excessive temperature per se. A growth tradeoff could exist between freezing tolerance and height growth rate if adaptations to tolerate cold climates interfered with growth. Analysis of height growth rate versus freezing tolerance for twenty-two North American trees provided evidence for such a tradeoff. Provenance trials of numerous tree species also showed that a tradeoff exists within species, indicating a genetic basis for these traits. The result of this tradeoff is that at their southern range margins most species do not suffer from too much heat but rather face competitors with a faster growth rate. The implication for future climate change is that forests will not suffer catastrophic dieback due to increased temperatures but will rather be replaced gradually by faster growing types, perhaps over hundreds of years.