Climate change is shifting the phenological cycles of plants1, thereby altering the functioning of ecosystems, which in turn induces feedbacks to the climate system2. In northern (north of 30° N) ecosystems, warmer springs lead generally to an earlier onset of the growing season3,4 and increased ecosystem productivity early in the season5. In situ6 and regional7–9 studies also provide evidence for lagged effects of spring warmth on plant productivity during the subsequent summer and autumn. However, our current understanding of these lagged effects, including their direction (beneficial or adverse) and geographic distribution, is still very limited. Here we analyse satellite, field-based and modelled data for the period 1982–2011 and show that there are widespread and contrasting lagged productivity responses to spring warmth across northern ecosystems. On the basis of the observational data, we find that roughly 15 per cent of the total study area of about 41 million square kilometres exhibits adverse lagged effects and that roughly 5 per cent of the total study area exhibits beneficial lagged effects. By contrast, current-generation terrestrial carbon-cycle models predict much lower areal fractions of adverse lagged effects (ranging from 1 to 14 per cent) and much higher areal fractions of beneficial lagged effects (ranging from 9 to 54 per cent). We find that elevation and seasonal precipitation patterns largely dictate the geographic pattern and direction of the lagged effects. Inadequate consideration in current models of the effects of the seasonal build-up of water stress on seasonal vegetation growth may therefore be able to explain the differences that we found between our observation-constrained estimates and the model-constrained estimates of lagged effects associated with spring warming. Overall, our results suggest that for many northern ecosystems the benefits of warmer springs on growing-season ecosystem productivity are effectively compensated for by the accumulation of seasonal water deficits, despite the fact that northern ecosystems are thought to be largely temperature- and radiation-limited10.
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