Recent climate warming forces contrasting growth responses of white spruce at treeline in Alaska through temperature thresholds


Martin Wilmking, tel. +1 907 458 0709, fax +1 907 474 6184, e-mail:


Northern and high-latitude alpine treelines are generally thought to be limited by available warmth. Most studies of tree-growth–climate interaction at treeline as well as climate reconstructions using dendrochronology report positive growth response of treeline trees to warmer temperatures. However, population-wide responses of treeline trees to climate remain largely unexamined. We systematically sampled 1558 white spruce at 13 treeline sites in the Brooks Range and Alaska Range. Our findings of both positive and negative growth responses to climate warming at treeline challenge the widespread assumption that arctic treeline trees grow better with warming climate. High mean temperatures in July decreased the growth of 40% of white spruce at treeline areas in Alaska, whereas warm springs enhance growth of additional 36% of trees and 24% show no significant correlation with climate. Even though these opposing growth responses are present in all sampled sites, their relative proportion varies between sites and there is no overall clear relationship between growth response and landscape position within a site. Growth increases and decreases appear in our sample above specific temperature index values (temperature thresholds), which occurred more frequently in the late 20th century. Contrary to previous findings, temperature explained more variability in radial growth after 1950. Without accounting for these opposite responses and temperature thresholds, climate reconstructions based on ring width will miscalibrate past climate, and biogeochemical and dynamic vegetation models will overestimate carbon uptake and treeline advance under future warming scenarios.