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News Article

Climatic warming increasing severity of frost damage on trees

Late frost damage economically important in forestry and agriculture

During periods of active growth in plants, frost events can cause extensive damage, resulting in major economic losses and ecological consequences.  The common assumption is that climate change will bring along a reduction in the frequency and severity of frost damage to plants; however, it has also been argued that rising temperatures in late winter and early spring could trigger a “false spring”, which is the early onset of growth due to warmer temperatures followed by a hard frost, resulting in increased vegetation damage.  A new study by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland, the Chinese Academy of Science and Zhejiang A&F University has found that climate change is increasing the frost damage on trees in large areas of Central Europe.

In 2007, the economic loss for agricultural crops following the eastern US spring freeze amounted to $112 million, with fruit crop loss of $86 million. In addition to the economic impact of frost damage, through potentially lethal damage to the sensitive tissues of plants, frost can alter species interactions and reduce carbon uptake, which could lead to significant changes in the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystems.

The researchers combined a high-resolution daily gridded climate data and in-situ phenological observations of 27 tree species from 5,565 observation sites across Europe, over a period of 30 years. They then used statistical models to understand the patterns of the frost events.  This provided the first comprehensive, multi-species study over a large geographical area on the effects of recent warming on the risk of potential spring frost damage to trees.

They found that temporal changes in the risk of spring frost damage with recent warming varied depending on the species and geographical location.  However, they noted that species whose phenology was particularly sensitive to climate warming were identified as having an increased risk of frost damage. For many species and sites, the leafing out and flowering advanced beyond the last day of frost.  Therefore, it is possible that harmful spring frosts could become more frequent and severe for many sites.

"For example, North-Western Germany, which is an important fruit producing area in Europe, experienced substantial increases in the occurrence of spring frosts," said study author Professor Frank Berninger.

The authors recognise that within the context of climate change, a better understanding of the occurrence and severity of frost damage to tree species, both spatially and temporally is important to analysing and estimating the survival, distribution and growth of tree species, as well as the impact of climate change on the structure and function of forests.  The team hope that their findings can help policymakers develop strategies to mitigate against the potential adverse effects of extreme climatic conditions on terrestrial ecosystems.

Further information on frost damage is available to subscribers of the Forest Science database.  For example, by using the search string ("frost injury" OR frost) AND "climate change" yields 523 records.  A selection of these records can be found in the further reading section below.

Journal Reference

Qianqian Ma, Jian-Guo Huang, Heikki Hänninen, Frank Berninger. Divergent trends in the risk of spring frost damage to trees in Europe with recent warmingGlobal Change Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14479

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Stephanie Cole
  • Date
  • 06 December 2018
  • Source
  • University of Finland
  • Subject(s)
  • Environment
  • Forest trees