Tree ring responses to climate and disturbance across a topographic gradient in the Ridge and Valley of Central Pennsylvania

Open Access
Bouma, Christopher Lee
Graduate Program:
Forest Resources
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
September 11, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Marc David Abrams, Thesis Advisor
  • dendrochronology
  • climate
  • gradient
  • aspect
  • temperature
Global climate has changed dramatically in the last century, much of which occurred in the last four decades. One result of this has been a change in the physiological response of biota. While some organisms adjust to this variation in climate by shifting their range, established trees must endure the new conditions imposed upon them. Recent findings indicate recent warming has resulted in increased radial growth throughout much of the eastern United States. However, this increase may not be ubiquitous across all locations or site types and growth patterns may vary across topographic positions. I measured the dendrochronology (annual tree rings) of two co-occurring yet contrasting tree species, the mesic red oak (Quercus rubra) and the more xeric chestnut oak (Quercus montana). The study sites were located across replicated topographic gradients (lower slope, southeast aspect, northwest aspect, and ridge top) in the Ridge and Valley province of central Pennsylvania. I evaluated radial growth as a function of site type, tree age and diameter, disturbance events, and climate (temperature, precipitation, and Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI)). Prior to the 1980s, growth rates on most sites were statistically similar. By the end of the 20th century, however, both species experienced significantly higher basal area increment (BAI) on southeast aspects than northwest sites. Increased growth rate was significantly correlated with increasing tree size. However, this relationship was disproportional across site types indicating other factors influenced growth. Throughout the study period, frequent disturbances from severe storms in the mid-1950s, 1966, and mid-1990s and gypsy moth outbreaks in the 1980s were also noted. Many stand-wide disturbances corresponded with significant climatic events, particularly on southeast aspect sites. Both species exhibited the highest tree ring release frequency on southeast aspects. Red oak and chestnut oak growth was also affected by temperature and precipitation as a function of topographic position, potentially facilitated by differences in disturbance. Red oak was negatively correlated with current year temperatures throughout the study period, particularly on northwest and ridge top sites. In contrast, chestnut oak on southeast and lower slope sites had a positive response to increasing temperature. Moreover, red oak BAI on northwest and ridge top locations were negatively correlated with winter temperatures while chestnut oak BAI was positively correlated with winter temperatures on lower slope and southeast sites. Chestnut oak growth on lower slope and southeast sites was also positively correlated with current year spring temperatures. Previous year precipitation was positively correlated with radial growth for both species on several sites types. Despite some predominant trends, differences in climate correlation did exist among similar sites. A transformed relative BAI (RBAI) produced the most significant climate correlations but with similar patterns to those with BAI and ring width index (RWI). Many environmental interactions and growth impacting factors changed in unison during the life of the study trees, including increasing temperature, precipitation, tree size, and disturbance events, making it difficult to isolate the impact of a single factor. Nevertheless, I conclude that changing climate patterns, including increased temperature, precipitation, and extreme climatic event intensity and frequency have and will continue to non-uniformly affect the growth rates of red oak and chestnut oak as a function of site type variation.