Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Natural Resources

First Advisor

Paul G. Schaberg

Second Advisor

Carol Adair


Understanding tree physiological responses to climate change is critical for quantifying forest carbon, predicting species' range change, and forecasting growth trajectories. Continued increases in temperature could push trees into conditions to which they are ill adapted -- such as decreased depth of winter snow cover, altered water regimes, and a lengthened effective growing season. A complicating factor is that in the northeastern United States, climate change is occurring on a backdrop of acid deposition and land-use change. In this dissertation, I used three studies to investigate the spatiotemporal nuances of resultant tree and sapling physiology to environmental change.

First, I compared annual growth of co-occurring tree species (sugar maple, red spruce, red maple, yellow birch, and balsam fir) along an elevational gradient on Vermont's tallest peak: Mt. Mansfield. I found baseline differences in growth among species, and many annual variations were associated with species-specific events. Yet, protracted growth patterns, such as recent increases for red spruce and red maple, were correlated with increased temperature and cooling degree days (a heat index). For most species, temperature was positively associated with current growth, but negatively associated with growth the following year. This work demonstrated species' differences in response to change and the complex relationships between growth and temperature.

Next, I analyzed how climate, environmental parameters, and site and tree factors related to recent, regional increases in red spruce growth. While there was variability in response to climate and acid deposition by elevation and location, site and tree factors did not adequately explain growth. Higher temperatures outside the traditional growing season were positively related to growth, while nitrogen deposition was strongly negative. However, if nitrogen inputs decline as projected then the strength of this relationship may decrease over time. These results suggest continued favorable conditions for red spruce in the near term as acid deposition declines and temperatures increase, provided precipitation remains adequate to support growth.

Lastly, I used a replicated micro-catchment study to examine how four species of tree saplings (paper birch, quaking aspen, American chestnut and black cherry) responded to experimentally elevated temperature (2-4C above control) and reduced early winter snow (first six weeks of winter), depending on soil type. Soil and species characteristics strongly influenced sapling response. However, natural weather patterns during the treatment period were highly variable and muted or exacerbated results. Heating increased the potential photosynthetic period in the fall, causing an overall increase in leaf area. Many two- and three-way interactions of treatment factors were also detected. These outcomes demonstrate the variability in sapling response to a changing climate, as well as the complex interactions that occur among soil, species, and weather parameters.



Number of Pages

202 p.