Scientific article
Open access

Shrub growth in the Alps diverges from air temperature since the 1990s

Published inEnvironmental Research Letters, vol. 16, no. 074026
Publication date2021

In the European Alps, air temperature has increased almost twice as much as the global average over the last century and, as a corollary, snow cover duration has decreased substantially. In the Arctic, dendroecological studies have evidenced that shrub growth is highly sensitive to temperature—this phenomenon has often been linked to shrub expansion and ecosystem greening. Yet, the impacts of climate change on mountain shrub radial growth have not been studied with a comparable level of detail so far. Moreover, dendroecological studies performed in mountain environments did not account for the potential modulation and/or buffering of global warming impacts by topography, despite its possible crucial role in complex alpine environments. To fill this gap, we analyzed a network of eight sites dominated by the dwarf shrub Rhododendron ferrugineum. The sites selected for analysis represent the diversity of continentality, elevation and slope aspect that can be found across the French Alps. We quantified annual radial increment growth for 119 individuals, assembled meteorological reanalyzes specifically accounting for topographic effects (elevation, slope and aspect) and assessed climate-growth relations using a mixed modeling approach. In agreement with a vast majority of dendroecological work conducted in alpine and arctic environments, we find that the number of growing degree days during the snow-free period snow-free growing degree days (SFGDDs) is a strong and consistent driver of R. ferrugineum growth across all sites since 1960 until the late 1980s. We also document a marked loss of sensitivity of radial growth to increasing SFGDD since the 1990s, with this decoupling being more pronounced at the driest sites. Our observations of the spatial and temporal variability of shrub sensitivity to limiting factors can be compared to the ‘divergence' problem observed in tree-ring series from circumpolar and alpine regions and, accordingly, sheds light on possible future trajectories of alpine shrub growth in response to ongoing climate change.

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Citation (ISO format)
FRANCON, Loïc et al. Shrub growth in the Alps diverges from air temperature since the 1990s. In: Environmental Research Letters, 2021, vol. 16, n° 074026. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac0b67
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Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal1748-9326

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