Get access

Tree phenology responses to winter chilling, spring warming, at north and south range limits



  1. Increases in primary production may occur if plants respond to climate warming with prolonged growing seasons, but not if local adaptation, cued by photoperiod, limits phenological advance. It has been hypothesized that trees with diffuse-porous xylem anatomy and early successional species may respond most to warming. Within species, northern populations may respond most due to the fact that growing seasons are relatively short. Species most sensitive to spring temperature may show little overall response to warming if reduced chilling in fall/winter offsets accelerated winter/spring development.

  2. Because current thermal models consider only highly aggregated variables, for example degree-days or chilling units (temperature sums for a season or year), they may not accurately represent warming effects. We show that assumptions contained in current thermal (degree-day) models are unrealistic for climate change analysis. Critical threshold parameters are not identifiable, and they do not actually have much to do with thresholds for development. Traditional models further overlook the discrete nature of observations, observation error and the continuous response of phenological development to temperature variation. An alternative continuous development model (CDM) that addresses these problems is applied to a large experimental warming study near northern and southern boundaries of 15 species in the eastern deciduous forest of the USA, in North Carolina and Massachusetts.

  3. Results provide a detailed time course of phenological development, including vernalization during winter and warming in spring, and challenge the basic assumptions of thermal models. Where traditional models find little evidence of a chilling effect (most are insignificant or have the wrong sign), the continuous development model finds evidence of chilling effects in most species.

  4. Contrary to the hypothesis that northern populations respond most, we find southern populations are most responsive. Because northern populations already have a compressed period for spring development, they may lack flexibility to further advance development. A stronger response in the southern range could allow residents to resist northward migration of immigrants as climate warms. If potential invaders fail to exploit a prolonged growing season to the same degree as residents, then there is a resident advantage.

  5. Hypothesized effects of warming for xylem anatomy and successional status are not supported by the 15 species in this study.

Get access to the full text of this article