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Forest microclimate dynamics drive plant responses to warming

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Science  15 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6492, pp. 772-775
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba6880

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Local factors restrain forest warming

Microclimates are key to understanding how organisms and ecosystems respond to macroclimate change, yet they are frequently neglected when studying biotic responses to global change. Zellweger et al. provide a long-term, continental-scale assessment of the effects of micro- and macroclimate on the community composition of European forests (see the Perspective by Lembrechts and Nijs). They show that changes in forest canopy cover are fundamentally important for driving community responses to climate change. Closed canopies buffer against the effects of macroclimatic change through their cooling effect, slowing shifts in community composition, whereas open canopies tend to accelerate community change through local heating effects.

Science, this issue p. 772; see also p. 711

Abstract

Climate warming is causing a shift in biological communities in favor of warm-affinity species (i.e., thermophilization). Species responses often lag behind climate warming, but the reasons for such lags remain largely unknown. Here, we analyzed multidecadal understory microclimate dynamics in European forests and show that thermophilization and the climatic lag in forest plant communities are primarily controlled by microclimate. Increasing tree canopy cover reduces warming rates inside forests, but loss of canopy cover leads to increased local heat that exacerbates the disequilibrium between community responses and climate change. Reciprocal effects between plants and microclimates are key to understanding the response of forest biodiversity and functioning to climate and land-use changes.

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