Climate modulates the effects of tree diversity on forest productivity

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Despite growing evidence that, on average, diverse forests tend to be more productive than species-poor ones, individual studies often report strongly contrasting relationships between tree species richness and above-ground wood production (AWP). In the attempt to reconcile these apparently inconsistent results, we explored whether the strength and shape of AWP–diversity relationships shifts along spatial and temporal environmental gradients in forests across Europe. We used tree ring data from a network of permanent forest plots distributed at six sites across Europe to estimate annual AWP over a 15-year period (1997–2011). We then tested whether the relationship between tree species richness and AWP changes (i) across sites as a function of large-scale gradients in climatic productivity and tree packing density and (ii) among years within each sites as a result of fluctuating climatic conditions. AWP–species richness relationships varied markedly among sites. As predicted by theory, the relationship shifted from strongly positive at sites where climate imposed a strong limitation on wood production and tree packing densities were low, to weakly negative at sites where climatic conditions for growth were most suitable. In contrast, we found no consistent effect of interannual fluctuations in climate on the strength of AWP–species richness relationships within sites. Our results indicate that the shape and strength of the relationship between tree diversity and forest productivity depends critically on environmental context. Across Europe, tree diversity shows the greatest potential to positively influence forest productivity at either end of the latitudinal gradient, where adverse climatic conditions limit productivity and lead to the development of less densely packed stands.

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