Quaking aspen climate-growth variability in Great Basin sky islands

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The Great Basin is an arid province located in the interior western United States. The region encompasses millions of hectares and quaking aspen forests comprise a minor portion of the total area. However, montane aspen forests play a disproportionately large role in providing ecosystem services in the region, including water retention, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, livestock forage, and recreational uses. With warming temperatures, increasing evaporative demand, and heightened precipitation variability, the future of aspen has become a critical concern. Using dendroecological approaches, we assessed growth patterns of 20 aspen stands across three geographically isolated “sky island” mountain ranges spanning portions of the northcentral Great Basin. We anticipated that the growth of Great Basin aspen would be strongly influenced by regional climatic patterns and largely in synchrony. Results revealed a more complex growth dynamic that varied among mountain ranges and across environmental gradients. In particular, aspen climate-growth relationships in the slightly dryer Ruby Mountains were strongly and positively correlated (r > 0.5) with previous fall to winter moisture availability. The Jarbidge Mountains had a positive but modest relationship with previous fall to winter moisture availability (r > 0.3). Climate-growth response in the Santa Rosa Mountains, the wettest range, showed no significant response to moisture availability during any time period examined but had greater tree-ring growth with warmer May temperatures. Although tree-ring centennial (1910 – 2010) growth trends were positive for all three mountain ranges, only the Santa Rosa Mountains maintained a positive recent growth trend (1970 – 2010). Moreover, distinct temporal shifts in tree growth-climate relationships in each mountain range suggest potentially unique aspen population adaptations to climate variability. For instance, in two of the mountain  ranges, there was a shift from positive/neutral to negative growth relationships with temperature starting around the 1963 – 1987 time period, while tree growth also began simultaneously responding more positively to  moisture availability. These growth shifts and observed enhanced sensitivities to monthly and seasonal climate variables over time may reflect dynamic tree growth responses caused by ongoing global climate change, but that may be tempered by local or regional factors, such as the relative availability and timing of soil moisture provided by spring snowmelt. A better understanding of biogeographic variation and causality in aspen growth could  provide multiple management pathways governed by resilience characteristics in the face of future anthropogenic and climatic threats.

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