Experimental exposure to winter thaws reveals tipping point in yellow birch bud mortality and phenology in the northern temperate forest of Quebec, Canada

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Marquis, B.; Lajoie, G.


Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of winter thaws, which could have two contrasting effects on leaf phenology. Phenology could either be advanced through the acceleration of forcing accumulation or chilling completion, or be postponed through a reduction in chilling associated with warming air temperature. We tested the influence of winter thaws on budburst phenology by exposing 300 tree cuttings of sugar maple and yellow birch trees to five different frequencies and durations of winter thaws in the lab. In spring, half of the cuttings were exposed to air temperature in two cities representing an air temperature gradient of + 2.0 degrees C to mimic the ongoing climate warming and bud phenology was monitored three times a week. Irrespective of thaw treatment, yellow birch phenology occurred earlier in the warmer city, showing the importance of spring temperature in triggering budburst. The treatment with the highest frequency and duration of thawing increased bud mortality and delayed the onset of spring phenology whereas low frequency treatments did not, thereby identifying a tipping point in the impact of winter thaws on bud phenology. Past this point, winter thaws could slow the acceleration of bud phenology induced by warmer spring temperature and limit carbon uptake by delaying the closure of the canopy. Climate change simulations projected by the CMIP6 Canadian downscaled climate scenario show that winter thaws will increase in frequency. Hence the expected advance in the spring phenology associated with warmer spring is not necessarily as straightforward as previously thought.

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