Ecological Society of America
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Climate change-driven droughts and insect outbreaks are becoming more frequent and widespread, increasing forest vulnerability to mortality. By addressing the impacts of climate and insects on tree growth preceding death, we can better understand tree mortality risk under a changing climate. Here, we used tree stature and interannual growth (basal area increment; BAI) to assess processes leading to trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) survival or mortality during an unprecedented leaf miner (Phyllocnistis populiella) outbreak in boreal North America. We identified eight sites (22 plots) in the longest running forest monitoring network in Alaska, spanning ~350 km of latitude, that experienced ≥0.25 Mg·ha−1·yr−1 aspen mortality during the outbreak. We compared the size and canopy position, growth patterns, and sensitivity to climate and leaf mining of aspen that survived (living; n = 84) vs. died (dying; n = 76) and linked the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) to plot-level aspen growth and stand biomass recruitment, growth, and mortality. Dying aspen were in the subcanopy, smaller in diameter, and after a drought in 1957 had lower growth than living aspen until death. Before the outbreak, growth of all trees was positively influenced by moisture and negatively by temperature, but only living trees maintained this climate response during the outbreak. Leaf mining reduced growth of both groups, exerting at least a twofold greater impact than climate. The NDVI captured plot-level tree growth and stand biomass growth and mortality, yet it was nearly two times more strongly associated with living than dying tree growth and 12 times more strongly associated with biomass growth than mortality. These differences suggest that NDVI may inadequately detect insect-driven dieback and dispersed mortality of aspen across the boreal biome. Our findings reveal that a historic drought triggered a multi-decadal growth decline that predisposed aspen to mortality during the leaf miner outbreak and that while aspen growth is influenced by moisture and temperature, it is more strongly affected by P. populiella. We conclude that as the climate warms and insect outbreaks increase in frequency and magnitude at high latitudes, we should expect to see persistent and greater declines in aspen growth and increases in mortality.
Boyd, M. A., Berner, L. T., Foster, A. C., Goetz, S. J., Rogers, B. M., Walker, X. J., and Mack, M. C.. 2021. Historic declines in growth portend trembling aspen death during a contemporary leaf miner outbreak in Alaska. Ecosphere 12( 6):e03569. 10.1002/ecs2.3569