Impacts of a spring heat wave on canopy processes in a northern hardwood forest

Heat wave frequency, duration, and intensity are predicted to increase with global warming, but the potential impacts of short‐term high temperature events on forest functioning remain virtually unstudied. We examined canopy processes in a forest in Central Ontario following 3 days of record‐setting high temperatures (31–33 °C) that coincided with the peak in leaf expansion of dominant trees in late May 2010. Leaf area dynamics, leaf morphology, and leaf‐level gas‐exchange were compared to data from prior years of sampling (2002–2008) at the same site, focusing on Acer saccharum Marsh., the dominant tree in the region. Extensive shedding of partially expanded leaves was observed immediately following high temperature days, with A. saccharum losing ca. 25% of total leaf production but subsequently producing an unusual second flush of neoformed leaves. Both leaf losses and subsequent reflushing were highest in the upper canopy; however, retained preformed leaves and neoformed leaves showed reduced size, resulting in an overall decline in end‐of‐season leaf area index of 64% in A. saccharum, and 16% in the entire forest. Saplings showed lower leaf losses, but also a lower capacity to reflush relative to mature trees. Both surviving preformed and neoformed leaves had severely depressed photosynthetic capacity early in the summer of 2010, but largely regained photosynthetic competence by the end of the growing season. These results indicate that even short‐term heat waves can have severe impacts in northern forests, and suggest a particular vulnerability to high temperatures during the spring period of leaf expansion in temperate deciduous forests.

Ben Filewood & Sean C. Thomas
Global Change Biology