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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • conifers;
  • dendroclimatology;
  • global warming;
  • growth responses;
  • temperature reconstructions

Abstract

Evidence for reduced sensitivity of tree growth to temperature has been reported from multiple forests along the high northern latitudes. This alleged circumpolar phenomenon described the apparent inability of temperature-sensitive tree-ring width and density chronologies to parallel increasing instrumental temperature measurements since the mid-20th century. In addition to such low-frequency trend offset, the inability of formerly temperature-sensitive tree growth to reflect high-frequency temperature signals in a warming world is indicated at some boreal sites, mainly in Alaska, the Yukon and Siberia. Here, we refer to both of these findings as the ‘divergence problem’ (DP), with their causes and scale being debated. If DP is widespread and the result of climatic forcing, the overall reliability of tree-ring-based temperature reconstructions should be questioned. Testing for DP benefits from well-replicated tree-ring and instrumental data spanning from the 19th to the 21st century. Here, we present a network of 124 larch and spruce sites across the European Alpine arc. Tree-ring width chronologies from 40 larch and 24 spruce sites were selected based on their correlation with early (1864–1933) instrumental temperatures to assess their ability of tracking recent (1934–2003) temperature variations. After the tree-ring series of both species were detrended in a manner that allows low-frequency variations to be preserved and scaled against summer temperatures, no unusual late 20th century DP is found. Independent tree-ring width and density evidence for unprecedented late 20th century temperatures with respect to the past millennium further reinforces our results.