Using tree rings to predict the response of tree growth to climate change in the continental United States during the twenty-first century

A. Park Williams, Joel Michaelsen, Steven W. Leavitt, Christopher J. Still

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


In the early 1900s, tree-ring scientists began analyzing the relative widths of annual growth rings preserved in the cross sections of trees to infer past climate variations. Now, many ring-width index (RWI) chronologies, each representing a specific site and species, are archived online within the International Tree-Ring Data Bank (ITRDB). Comparing annual tree-ringwidth data from 1097 sites in the continental United States to climate data, the authors quantitatively evaluated how trees at each site have historically responded to interannual climate variations. For each site, they developed a climate-driven statistical growth equation that uses regional climate variables to model RWI values. The authors applied these growth models to predict how tree growth will respond to twenty-first-century climate change, considering four climate projections. Although caution should be taken when extrapolating past relationships with climate into the future, the authors observed several clear and interesting patterns in the growth projections that seem likely if warming continues. Most notably, the models project that productivity of dominant tree species in the southwestern United States will decrease substantially during this century, especially in warmer and drier areas. In the northwest, nonlinear growth relationships with temperature may lead to warming-induced declines in growth for many trees that historically responded positively to warmer temperatures. This work takes advantage of the unmatched temporal length and spatial breath of annual growth data available within the ITRDB and exemplifies the potential of this ever-growing archive of tree-ring data to serve in meta-analyses of large-scale forest ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalEarth Interactions
Issue number19
StatePublished - Dec 2010


  • Climate change
  • Forests
  • Tree rings
  • United States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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