The effects of climate on the growth and physiology of tropical rainforest trees

Joseph John O'Brien, Florida International University


Tropical rainforests account for more than a third of global net primary production and contain more than half of the global forest carbon. Though these forests are a disproportionately important component of the global carbon cycle, the relationship between rainforest productivity and climate remains poorly understood. Understanding the link between current climate and rainforest tree stem diameter increment, a major constituent of forest productivity, will be crucial to efforts at modeling future climate and rainforest response to climate change. This work reports the physiological and stem growth responses to micrometeorological and phenological states of ten species of canopy trees in a Costa Rican wet tropical forest at sub-annual time intervals. I measured tree growth using band dendrometers and estimated leaf and reproductive phenological states monthly. Electronic data loggers recorded xylem sap flow (an indicator of photosynthetic rate) and weather at half-hour intervals. An analysis of xylem sap flow showed that physiological responses were independent of species, which allowed me to construct a general model of weather driven sap flow rates. This model predicted more than eighty percent of climate driven sap flow variation. Leaf phenology influenced growth in three of the ten species, with two of these species showing a link between leaf phenology and weather. A combination of rainfall, air temperature, and irradiance likely provided the cues that triggered leaf drop in Dipteryx panamensis and Lecythis ampla. Combining the results of the sap flow model, growth, and the climate measures showed tree growth was correlated to climate, though the majority of growth variation remained unexplained. Low variance in the environmental variables and growth rates likely contributed to the large amount of unexplained variation. A simple model that included previous growth increment and three meteorological variables explained from four to nearly fifty percent of the growth variation. Significant growth carryover existed in six of the ten species, and rainfall was positively correlated to growth in eight of the ten species. Minimum nighttime temperature was also correlated to higher growth rates in five of the species and irradiance in two species. These results indicate that tropical rainforest tree trunks could act as carbon sinks if future climate becomes wetter and slightly warmer.

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Recommended Citation

O'Brien, Joseph John, "The effects of climate on the growth and physiology of tropical rainforest trees" (2001). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI3031607.