In amongst the nasty consequences of global warming – sea-level-rise-ocean-acidification-violent-storms-heat-waves-large-scale-extinctions (if you say it quickly and rock back and forth at the same time it doesn’t seem quite so bad) – a decline in the intensity of autumn leaf colour really doesn’t draw the eye. Bar a few unusual plants like the red-fruited kurrajong and the Antarctic beech, most deciduous plants around here aren’t even natives. So who cares, eh?
But as I huddle in my chilly house on its shady south-facing hillside, waiting for the leaves on the neighbour’s looming liquidambar to fall, the impact of climate change on deciduous trees seems like a tremendously pressing question.
I’m not the only one gripped by this crucial topic. The latest Trends in Ecology and Evolution has roundly denounced the scandalous neglect of autumn. Spring gets its own live feed on BBC TV, but even scientists get depressed by extended discussions of leaf senescence, it seems. Garnering less than half as many articles as its greener sibling, autumn, according to the indignant authors, is a “neglected season in climate change research”.
Well, neglected no longer! Not here in the backyards of Berowra. Right here, right now we bring you…. in the prophetic words of Gallinat and her outraged colleagues… “the future of autumn research”.
As we march boldly into fall’s future, I’m cling to the hope that photoperiod (that’s the day-length to you and me) will rescue me from climate change, sending that winter-sun-blocking foliage promptly into the compost bin regardless of how roasting hot it is. And it’s not a vain hope – the amount of light a deciduous plant receives does seem to help many decide whether it’s time to shed their leaves or not.
In the case of liquidambar, long days or lots of light delay dormancy, as you can see from these nifty pictures of a specimen down the street, well illuminated day and night so as to minimise deaths on a local pedestrian crossing, clinging to its leaves long after its neighbours have shrugged their own.
Depressingly, it does seem that sweetgums need cooler weather to finally ditch their leaves, even in the short days of midwinter. Photoperiod matters most near the poles – but for trees at the lower latitudes (like Sydney, curse it) temperature is the clincher.
This raises interesting questions about the future of the veggie garden. Around the winter solstice it lurks in the shade of our dawn redwood, a living fossil that grew across the temperate Arctic when dinosaurs stomped the earth, and was dramatically rediscovered in the 1940s in a single isolated valley in China. Will its gorgeous copper needles still fall in time to give my broadbeans a decent run-up to spring when we’re wearing shorts all winter?
In the words of a Facebook status update, “it’s complicated”. Could this be why climate scientists, like nervous singles, are staying well clear?
For instance, warmer springs lead to earlier bud burst, which can sometimes mean earlier leaf-fall. And deciduous trees in general tend to lose their leaves more readily in dry weather. “On average”, according to Estiarte and Peñuelas (2015) “climatic warming will delay and drought will advance leaf senescence”. Work that one out.
And that’s not even throwing nutrient availability into the mix. For instance, what if trees start going ballistic with all that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? This vision of a greenhouse planet jungle awash with joyful plants growing at breakneck speed sounds like something out of a climate denialist fantasy, doesn’t it? “More open cut mines, pretty please!” beg the earth’s desperate forests “my future is coal!”
Sadly for the wind-farm haters, it mostly doesn’t work like that. Carbon dioxide can give trees a flying start but eventually the nitrogen supply conks out, or drought and too much CO2 do the leaves in. Even with the help of globe-trotting survivors like sweet gums and dawn redwoods, coal (and copious quantities of greenhouse gases) won’t make the world greener. Let’s just hope, even gardening in our bikinis, we can still find gold.
- Estiarte, M and Peñuelas, J (2015) “Alteration of the phenology of leaf senescence and fall in winter deciduous species by climate change: effects on nutrient proficiency” from Global Change Biology 21(2) 1005-17
- Flexas, J, Loreto, F and Medrano, H. (2012) Terrestrial photosynthesis in a changing environment: a molecular, physiological and ecological approach, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
- Gallinat, AS, Primack, RB, Wagner, DL (2015) “Autumn, the neglected season in climate change research” from Trends in ecology and evolution 30(3)
Warren JM, Jensen AM, Medlyn BE, Norby RJ, Tissue DT, (2015) ‘Carbon dioxide stimulation of photosynthesis in Liquidambar styraciflua is not sustained during a 12-year field experiment’, AOB Plants, vol.7, Article no.plu074
Warren, JM, Norby, RJ, Wullschleger SD (2011) ‘Elevated CO2 enhances leaf senescence during extreme drought in a temperate forest”. Tree Physiology 31, 117-30
Worrall, J (1993) “Temperature effects on bud-burst and leaf-fall in subalpine larch” Journal of Sustainable Forestry 1(2)