1. Long-term basal area increment (BAI) in Abies pinsapo was studied to investigate the way density-dependent factors modulate the responses of radial growth to climatic stresses in relict stands of a drought-sensitive Mediterranean fir.
2. First, we verified that spatially explicit competition predicts mean A. pinsapo BAI at our study site; i.e. it modulates the degree to which the average climate-driven potential for growth is expressed. Second, we verified that the long-term pattern of temperature predicts the long-term pattern of BAI, estimated as the main trend over a time period of c. 40 years. Finally, we assessed whether the intensity of tree-to-tree competition restrains the potential improvements achieved by our model of BAI when a short-term, high-frequency stressor such as drought (inter-annual precipitation variability) is introduced.
3. We applied Dynamic Factor Analysis (DFA) to characterize regional climatic trends and to test the hypothesis that trees subjected to contrasting competition intensity may differ in their growth pattern. Significant long-term climate trends obtained by DFA were used as predictors of long-term BAI.
4. The mean BAI was mainly determined by competition, whereas growth trends obtained by DFA did not differ among dominant, suppressed and dying trees. Common trends of growth decline were strongly related to long-term, late-winter to summer temperatures, while the residuals were related to total annual precipitation, although with decreasing significance as competition increased. Our results support the contention that the reported patterns of A. pinsapo growth decline and death occur as a result of the interacting effects of both competition and climate stressors acting at long- and short-term time scales.
5.Synthesis. Long-term climatic drought stress was the main driving factor of growth decline in A. pinsapo. Moreover, trees already suffering from competition (a long-term stress) were predisposed to decline given an additional short-term stress, such as a severe drought.