Phenology and growth of European trees in relation to climate change

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


Research topics

The relationships between climate and both phenology and growth of some important European tree species were studied to evaluate the potential impacts of climate change on trees and forests in Europe. In order to make such assessments, insight is required on the mechanisms how climatic variables interact with plant processes. The topics addressed in this study were: (1) the modelling of phenology, (2) the consequences of climate change on spring frost damage, (3) the importance of phenotypic plasticity, (4) the importance of phenology on the effects of climate change on growth of monospecies deciduous forests, and (5) the importance of phenology on the effects of climate change on growth of mixed-species deciduous forests.

Modelling phenology

To evaluate the impacts of climate change on growth of temperate deciduous tree species, the onset and cessation of the growth must be accurately described. A review is presented on eight models predicting the date of leaf unfolding depending on temperature. These models were fitted using 57 years of observations on the date of leaf unfolding of Fagus sylvatica in The Netherlands, and used to predict 40 years of similar observations collected in Germany. As conflicting experimental evidence exist on the role of photoperiod on leaf unfolding of Fagus sylvatica, photoperiod was incorporated into each of these models.

The timing of leaf unfolding could best be described by a model in which the effects of chilling temperatures (-5 to +10°C) and forcing temperatures (>0°C) operate sequentially in time, according to a triangular and logistic function, respectively. Including photoperiod reduced the predicting power of this model.

Spring frost damage

Two studies presented in literature evaluate the effect of increasing winter temperature on the probability of spring frost damage to trees. However, one study predicted an increase, while the other predicted a decrease in the probability of spring frost damage. It is unclear whether the disparity is because: (1) different models were used, (2) different climatic warming scenarios used, or (3) the tree species at the different locations respond differently to warmer winters. To evaluate the effects of climatic warming to Larix decidua, Betula pubescens, Tilia platyphylla, Fagus sylvatica, Tilia cordata, Quercus rubra, Quercus robur, Fraxinus excelcior, Quercus petraea, Picea abies and Pinussylvestris in The Netherlands and in Germany, both models were fitted to long series of observations on the date of leaf unfolding of these tree species. The impact of the two scenarios (uniformly and non-uniformly changing winter temperature) on the date of leaf unfolding and on the probability of freezing temperature around that date was evaluated. To test the importance of adaptation to local climate, hypothetical provenance transfers were analysed.

For tree species in The Netherlands and Germany the probability of spring frost damage will decrease, provided the variability in temperature does not change. The contradictory results found in literature could be ascribed to differences among provenances adapted to their local climate, rather than to differences between either the models or the climatic warming scenarios used in these studies.


To evaluate the potential response of individual trees to climatic warming, phenological observations of clones of Larix decidua, Betula pubescens, Tilia cordata, Populus canescens, Quercus robur, Fagus sylvatica, and Picea abies transferred over a large latitudinal range in Europe were analysed. The magnitude of the clone's response was compared to that of genetically different trees of the same species along a part of the latitudinal range, which were assumed to have adapted to their local climate.

The responses of the date of leaf unfolding and leaf fall of the clones to temperature are similar in magnitude to those of the genetically different trees. This demonstrates that trees possess a considerable plasticity and are able to respond phenotypically to a major change in their local climate. For the clones of Larix decidua and Quercus robur the growing season may shorten with increasing temperature, because leaf fall is advanced more than leaf unfolding. In Betula pubescens and Populus canescens, leaf unfolding and leaf fall are advanced equally, whereas in Tilia cordata and Fagus sylvatica the date of leaf fall seems to be unaltered but leaf unfolding advances with increasing temperature. These differences in the duration of the growing season in response to increasing temperature may alter the competitive balance between the species in mixed stands.

Descriptive dynamic models showed that most of the variance of the date of leaf unfolding can be accounted for by temperature. However, a generally applicable model of leaf fall based on temperature and/or photoperiod could not improve the null model, i.e. the mean date of leaf fall, because of variability in other environmental factors.

The lowest temperature around the date of leaf unfolding and leaf fall differed among the clones. The hypothesis that the survival of the clones is curtailed by spring frosts was supported. Thus, these lowest temperatures around leaf unfolding may represent thresholds below which the species cannot survive.

It is argued that these thresholds may be a particularly sensitive means to evaluate the impacts of climatic warming on the geographical distribution of tree species.

Growth of monospecies forests

The importance of three phenological types of deciduous tree for the effects of climate change on growth of monospecies forests was evaluated using the model FORGRO. The climate change scenarios used were a doubling of the C02 concentration (700 μmol mol -1) and an increase in temperature ranging from 0 to 7°C. To elucidate the relative importance of photosynthesis and allocation for this evaluation, models with different levels of mechanistic detail of photosynthesis and allocation were used. The photosynthesis approach of FORGRO was compared to the Farquhar and Von Caernmerer approach as formulated in PGEN (FORGRO-PGEN). Similarly, the allocation approach of FORGRO was compared to the transport-resistance approach, as formulated in the ITE-Edinburgh model (ITE-FORGRO). A sensitivity analysis was performed to ascertain whether the response of gross photosynthesis to a climate change scenario depends on the value assigned to parameters in these models, and to compare this sensitivity with the differences found between the phenological types. The differences in the response of annual gross photosynthesis ( Pg,a ) to the climate change scenarios between the phenological types were smaller according to ITE- FORGRO as compared to FORGRO. These differences are of a similar magnitude when comparing the two photosynthesis models. Furthermore, FORGRO-PGEN showed that the response of Pg,a to a 2 x [ 2 CO ] increases with rising temperature, thus compensating for the increase in respiration. For both FORGRO and ITEFORGRO, this C0 2 and temperature interaction was not found. Consequently, in these models the increase in respiration exceeded the increase in gross photosynthesis at the higher range of temperature rise. The sensitivity analysis showed that the models differ in the sensitivity of the response of Pg,a to a 2 x [C 2 O ] scenario combined with a temperature rise of 2°C ( C700 / T2 ), when parameter values change by ±25%. In FORGRO-PGEN, the magnitude of the response of Pg,a depended on the values of some of its parameters, especially those determining the Michaelis-Menten kinetics of Rubisco, which for these parameters exceeded the differences between the phenological types in this scenario. In both FORGRO and ITE-FORGRO, this sensitivity is similar to or less than the difference between the phenological types in the C700 / T2 scenario.

Growth of mixed-species forests

Using the same three phenological types and climate change scenarios, the effects of differences in phenology and spring frost damage on growth in mixed-species stands were evaluated using the models FORGRO and HYBRID. FORGRO highlights potential growth in managed forests, whereas HYBRID highlights feedbacks of carbon, water and nitrogen cycles in General Vegetation Types, based on gap model theory. Furthermore, the importance of inaccuracy of the phenological model for growth in mixed-species stands was evaluated by comparing the modelling approach with a regression approach.

The results of the climate change scenarios indicate for both FORGRO and HYBRID that: (1) the differences in NPP of the three phenological types considered are enhanced when grown in a mixed-species stand compared to a monospecies stand; and (2) the consequences of frost damage on growth is more prominent in mixed-species stands than in monospecies stands.

Considering the accuracy of the modelling approach compared to the regression approach for the timing of leaf unfolding and spring frost damage, the sequential model of leaf unfolding shows a similar response of the NPP as the regression approach, both for the monospecies and the mixed-species situation. The modelling approach yields, however, larger differences in the NPP between the phenological types because the model predicts a greater advancement of leaf unfolding than the regression model. Comparing the regression approach to the modelling approach for frost hardiness, the regression approach shows a greater frequency of frost damage, because according to the model, the minimum level of frost hardiness is attained after the date of leaf unfolding, thus reducing this frequency.

The differences in phenological response to temperature can be used to evaluate the consequences of climate change on the geographical distributions of species.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Goudriaan, J., Promotor
  • Mohren, Frits, Promotor
Award date19 Jan 1996
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789054854647
Publication statusPublished - 1996


  • forestry
  • phenology
  • silviculture
  • forestry practices
  • growth
  • environmental factors
  • climatic change
  • palaeoclimatology
  • Europe


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