Verschuren L., De Mil T., De Frenne P., Haneca K., Van Acker J., Vandekerkhove K., Van den Bulcke J.[2023] Heading for a fall: The fate of old wind-thrown beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) is detectable in their growth pattern. Science of the Total Environment 903, 1-10
Abstract [en] :

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) is one of the most important deciduous tree species in European forests.
However, climate-change-induced drought may threaten its dominant position. The Sonian Forest close to Brussels (Belgium) is home to some of the largest beech trees in the world. This UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its high density of very large beech trees as a result of its climatic suitability, fertile soil conditions, and past management. Here we utilized tree-ring data from increment cores to investigate the growth of these old and monumental beech trees, evaluating their growth trends, response to past climate, and the effect of mast years on 39 living and 16 recently wind-thrown trees. Our analysis reveals that the sampled trees were generally sensitive to spring and summer droughts but recovered quickly after such an extreme climatic event. The growth trend of living trees has remained high and only shows a slight, statistically insignificant, decline over the past strong inter-annual growth variations due to frequent and more intense droughts combined with an increased frequency of mast years. We also found notable differences in growth patterns between the living trees and those that had recently been wind-thrown. While there were no significant differences between living and wind-thrown trees in response to droughts, heatwaves, or mast years when examining year-to-year growth changes, the windthrown trees did exhibit considerably lower overall growth rates and a significant downward trend in growth (BAI -0.57 cm²/year). This difference in growth trends has been apparent since at least the 1980s. Overall, the findings of this study can provide valuable insights for understanding the long-term dynamics of lowland beech forests and their responses to climate change.