Research Article

Increased growing-season productivity drives earlier autumn leaf senescence in temperate trees

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Science  27 Nov 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6520, pp. 1066-1071
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd8911

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Limits to the growing season

The length of the growing season in temperate forests has been increasing under recent climate change because of earlier leaf emergence and later leaf senescence. However, Zani et al. show that this trend might be reversed as increasing photosynthetic productivity begins to drive earlier autumn leaf senescence (see the Perspective by Rollinson). Using a combination of experimental, observational, and modeling studies based on European forest trees, the researchers conclude that leaf senescence will advance by 3 to 6 days by the end of the 21st century rather than lengthening by 1 to 3 weeks as current phenological models have predicted. In turn, this predicted phenological pattern will limit the capacity of temperate forests to mitigate climate change through carbon uptake.

Science, this issue p. 1066; see also p. 1030


Changes in the growing-season lengths of temperate trees greatly affect biotic interactions and global carbon balance. Yet future growing-season trajectories remain highly uncertain because the environmental drivers of autumn leaf senescence are poorly understood. Using experiments and long-term observations, we show that increases in spring and summer productivity due to elevated carbon dioxide, temperature, or light levels drive earlier senescence. Accounting for this effect improved the accuracy of senescence predictions by 27 to 42% and reversed future predictions from a previously expected 2- to 3-week delay over the rest of the century to an advance of 3 to 6 days. These findings demonstrate the critical role of sink limitation in governing the end of seasonal activity and reveal important constraints on future growing-season lengths and carbon uptake of trees.

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