In the spring of 2010, temperatures averaged ~3 °C above the long-term mean (March–May) across the northeastern United States. However, in mid-to-late spring, much of this region experienced a severe frost event. The spring of 2010 therefore provides a case study on how future spring temperature extremes may affect northeastern forest ecosystems. We assessed the response of three northern hardwood tree species (sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch) to these anomalous temperature patterns using several different data sources and addressed four main questions: (1) Along an elevational gradient, how was each species affected by the late spring frost? (2) How did differences in phenological growth strategy influence their response? (3) How did the late spring frost affect ecosystem productivity within the study domain? (4) What are the potential long-term impacts of spring frost events on forest community ecology? Our results show that all species exhibited early leaf development triggered by the warm spring. However, yellow birch and American beech have more conservative growth strategies and were largely unaffected by the late spring frost. In contrast, sugar maples responded strongly to warmer temperatures and experienced widespread frost damage that resulted in leaf loss and delayed canopy development. Late spring frost events may therefore provide a competitive advantage for yellow birch and American beech at the expense of sugar maple. Results from satellite remote sensing confirm that frost damage was widespread throughout the region at higher elevations (>500 m). The frost event is estimated to have reduced gross ecosystem productivity by 70–153 g C m−2, or 7–14% of the annual gross productivity (1061 ± 82 g C m−2) across 8753 km2 of high-elevation forest. We conclude that frost events following leaf out, which are expected to become more common with climate change, may influence both forest composition and ecosystem productivity.
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