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Title: Global forests are influenced by the legacies of past inter-annual temperature variability

Inter-annual climate variability (hereafter climate variability) is increasing in many forested regions due to climate change. This variability could have larger near-term impacts on forests than decadal shifts in mean climate, but how forests will respond remains poorly resolved, particularly at broad scales. Individual trees, and even forest communities, often have traits and ecological strategies—the legacies of exposure to past variable conditions—that confer tolerance to subsequent climate variability. However, whether local legacies also shape global forest responses is unknown. Our objective was to assess how past and current climate variability influences global forest productivity. We hypothesized that forests exposed to large climate variability in the past would better tolerate current climate variability than forests for which past climate was relatively stable. We used historical (1950–1969) and contemporary (2000–2019) temperature, precipitation, and vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and the remotely sensed enhanced vegetation index (EVI) to quantify how historical and contemporary climate variability relate to patterns of contemporary forest productivity. Consistent with our hypothesis, forests exposed to large temperature variability in the past were more tolerant of contemporary temperature variability than forests where past temperatures were less variable. Forests were 19-fold times less sensitive to contemporary temperature variability where historical inter-annual more » temperature variability was 0.66 °C (two standard deviations) greater than the global average historical temperature variability. We also found that larger increases in temperature variability between the two study periods often eroded the tolerance conferred by the legacy effects of historical temperature variability. However, the hypothesis was not supported in the case of precipitation and VPD variability, potentially due to physiological tradeoffs inherent in how trees cope with dry conditions. We conclude that the sensitivity of forest productivity to imminent increases in temperature variability may be partially predictable based on the legacies of past conditions.

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Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Environmental Research: Ecology
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
Article No. 011001
IOP Publishing
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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    Time period


    Major taxa studied



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