Major changes in growth rate and growth variability of beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) related to soil alteration and climate change in Belgium. Forests 7, 174, doi:10.3390/f7080174
Global change—particularly climate change, forest management, and atmospheric deposition—has significantly altered forest growing conditions in Europe. The influences of these changes on beech growth (Fagus sylvatica L.) were investigated for the past 80 years in Belgium, using non-linear mixed effects models on ring-width chronologies of 149 mature and dominant beech trees (87–186 years old). The effects of the developmental stage (i.e., increasing tree size) were filtered out in order to focus on time-dependent growth changes. Beech radial growth was divided into a low-frequency signal (=growth rate), mainly influenced by forest management and atmospheric deposition, and into a high-frequency variability (≈mean sensitivity), mainly influenced by climate change. Between 1930 and 2008, major long-term and time-dependent changes were highlighted. The beech growth rate has decreased by about 38% since the 1950–1960s, and growth variability has increased by about 45% since the 1970–1980s. Our results indicate that (1) before the 1980s, beech growth rate was not predominantly impacted by climate change but rather by soil alteration (i.e., soil compaction and/or nitrogen deposition); and (2) since the 1980s, climate change induced more frequent and intense yearly growth reductions that amplified the growth rate decrease. The highlighted changes were similar in the two ecoregions of Belgium, although more pronounced in the lowlands than in the uplands.