Recent climate changes interact with stand structure and management to determine changes in tree carbon stocks in Spanish forests

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Most temperate forests are accumulating carbon (C) and may continue to do so in the near future. However, the situation may be different in water-limited ecosystems, where the potentially positive effects of C and N fertilization and rising temperatures interact with water availability. In this study, we use the extensive network of plots of two consecutive Spanish national forest inventories to identify the factors that determine the spatial variation of the C stock change, growth, and mortality rate of forests in Peninsular Spain (below- and aboveground). We fitted general linear models to assess the response of C stock change and its components to the spatial variability of climate (in terms of water availability), forest structure (tree density and C stock), previous forest management, and the recent warming trend. Our results show that undisturbed forests in Peninsular Spain are accumulating C at a rate of ˜1.4 Mg C ha−1 yr−1, and that forest structural variables are the main determinants of forest growth and C stock change. Water availability was positively related to growth and C accumulation. On the other hand, recent warming has reduced growth rate and C accumulation, especially in wet areas. Spatial variation in mortality (in terms of C loss) was mostly driven by differences in growth rate across plots, and was consistent with ‘natural’, self-thinning dynamics related to the recent abandonment of forest management over large areas of Spain, with the consequent increase in tree density and competition. Interestingly, the negative effect of warming on forest C accumulation disappears if only managed stands are considered, emphasizing the potential of forest management to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, the effect of forest management was weak and, in some cases, not significant, implying the need of further research on its impact.

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