Global Change Biology
climate change, drought stress, forest-steppe ecotones, semi-arid north-eastern Asia, shoot water potentials, Siberian larch, tree-ring width
Trends in air temperature and precipitation in the forest-steppe ecotone of the western Khentey, northern Mongolia were studied and related to stem increment and shoot water relations in Mongolia’s most common tree species, Siberian larch (Larix sibirica). The area has been subject to a significant increase of summer temperature and a decrease of summer precipitation during the last 47 years. Tree-ring width series from 4400 larch trees show a strongly decreasing annual increment since the 1940s. The onset of this decrease is independent of the age of the trees and, therefore, can be attributed to the increasing aridity in the 20th century. Simultaneously to the declining annual increment, regeneration of Siberian larch decreased as well; today regeneration is virtually lacking in the larch forests on mountain slopes of the western Khentey. Measurements of shoot water potentials during the growing season exhibited daily minimum water potentials close to the point of zero turgor for extended periods. The drought stress indicated by these results is in line with the current low annual increment. Trees in the forest interior were more severely stressed and grow more slowly than trees at the forest line to steppe. This is attributable to the recent increase in aridity, as the stand density and probably also the trees themselves in the forest interior are adapted to moister conditions, whereas the trees at the forest edge have always been exposed to a more extreme microclimate. The progressing increase in aridity during the 21st century that is predicted for the western Khentey, suggests a future decline of larch forests. A widespread increase of aridity predicted for most parts of the Mongolian forest belt, suggests even a supra-regional decline of larch.