Questions: (1) How do extreme climatic events and climate variability influence radial growth of conifers (silver fir, Norway spruce, Scots pine)? (2) How do elevation and soil water capacity (SWC) modulate sensitivity to climate?
Location: The sampled conifer stands are in France, in western lowland and mountain forests, at elevations from 400 to 1700 m, and an SWC from 50 to 190 mm.
Methods: We established stand chronologies for total ring width, earlywood and latewood width for the 33 studied stands (985 trees in total). Responses to climate were analysed using pointer years and bootstrapped response functions. Principal component analysis was applied to pointer years and response function coefficients in order to elucidate the ecological structure of the studied stands.
Results: Extreme winter frosts are responsible for greater growth reductions in silver fir than in Norway spruce, especially at the upper elevation, while Scots pine was the least sensitive species. Exceptional spring droughts caused a notable growth decrease, especially when local conditions were dry (altitude<1000 m and SWC<100 mm for silver fir, western lowlands for Scots pine). Earlywood of silver fir depended on previous September and November and current-year February temperature, after which current June and July water supply influenced latewood. Earlywood of Norway spruce was influenced by previous September temperature, after which current spring and summer droughts influenced both ring components. In Scots pine, earlywood and latewood depended on the current summer water balance. Local conditions mainly modulated latewood formation.
Conclusions: If the climate becomes drier, low-elevation dry stands or trees growing in western lowlands may face problems, as their growth is highly dependent on soil moisture availability.