Climatic drivers of hourly to yearly tree radius variations along a 6°C natural warming gradient

Gregory King, Patrick Fonti, Daniel Nievergelt, Ulf Büntgen, David Frank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

132 Scopus citations


Climate affects the timing, rate and dynamics of tree growth, over time scales ranging from seconds to centuries. Monitoring how a tree's stem radius varies over these time scales can provide insight into intra-annual stem dynamics and improve our understanding of climate impacts on tree physiology and growth processes. Here, we quantify the response of radial conifer stem size to environmental fluctuations via a novel assessment of tree circadian cycles. We analyze four years of sub-hourly data collected from 56 larch and spruce trees growing along a natural temperature gradient of ∼6. °C in the central Swiss Alps. During the growing season, tree stem diameters were greatest at mid-morning and smallest in the late evening, reflecting the daily cycle of water uptake and loss. Along the gradient, amplitudes calculated from the stem radius cycle were ∼50% smaller at the upper site (∼2200. m a.s.l.) relative to the lower site (∼800. m a.s.l.). We show changes in precipitation, temperature and cloud cover have a substantial effect on typical growing season diurnal cycles; amplitudes were nine times smaller on rainy days (>10. mm), and daily amplitudes are approximately 40% larger when the mean daily temperature is 15-20. °C than when it is 5-10. °C. We find that over the growing season in the sub-alpine forests, spruce show greater daily stem water movement than larch. However, under projected future warming, larch could experience up to 50% greater stem water use, which may severely affect future growth on already dry sites. Our data further indicate that because of the confounding influences of radial growth and short-term water dynamics on stem size, conventional methodology probably overstates the effect of water-linked meteorological variables (i.e. precipitation and relative humidity) on intra-annual tree growth. We suggest future studies use intra-seasonal measurements of cell development and consider whether climatic factors produce reversible changes in stem diameter. These study design elements may help researchers more accurately quantify and attribute changes in forest productivity in response to future warming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-46
Number of pages11
JournalAgricultural and Forest Meteorology
StatePublished - Jan 15 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Altitudinal gradient
  • Dendrochronology
  • Dendrometer
  • Diurnal cycles
  • Larix decidua
  • Picea abies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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