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Cold-season freeze frequency is a pervasive driver of sub-continental forest growth

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As northern latitudes experience rapid winter warming, there is an urgent need to assess the effect of varying winter conditions on tree growth and forest carbon sequestration potential. We examined tree growth responses to variability in cold-season (November-April) frequency of freeze days (FFD) over 1951-2018 using tree-ring data from 35,217 trees and 57 species at 4,375 sites distributed across Canada. We found that annual radial growth responses to FFD varied by species, with some commonalities across genera and clades. The growth of gymnosperms with late spring leaf-out strategies was negatively related to FFD; years with high FFD were most detrimental to the annual growth of Pinus banksiana, Pinus contorta. Larix lyalli, Abies amabilis, and Abies lasiocarpa. In contrast, the growth of angiosperms with early leaf-out strategies, Populus tremuloides and Betula papyrifera, grew better in the coldest years and gymnosperms with intermediate leaf-out timing, such as widespread Picea mariana and Picea glauca, had no consistent relationship to FFD. Tree growth responses to FFD were further modulated by tree size, tree age, regional climate (i.e., mean cold-season temperature) and local site conditions. Overall, our results suggest that moderately warming winters may temporarily improve growth of widespread pines and some high-elevation conifers in western Canada whereas warming winters may be detrimental to the growth of widespread boreal angiosperms. Our findings also highlight the value of using species-specific climate-growth relationships to refine predictions of forest carbon dynamics.

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