Monitoring of freezing dynamics in trees: a simple phase shift causes complexity
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During winter, trees have to cope with harsh conditions, including extreme freeze-thaw stress. The present study focused on ice nucleation and propagation, related water shifts and xylem cavitation as well as cell damage, and was based on in situ monitoring of xylem (thermocouples) and surface temperatures (infrared imaging), ultrasonic emissions and dendrometer analysis. Field experiments during late winter on Picea abies growing at the alpine timberline revealed three distinct freezing patterns: (i) from the top of the tree towards the base, (ii) from thin branches towards the main stem's top and base, and (iii) from the base towards the top. Infrared imaging showed freezing within branches from their base towards distal parts. Such complex freezing causes dynamic and heterogeneous patterns in water potential and probably in cavitation. This study highlights the interaction between environmental conditions upon freezing and thawing and demonstrates the enormous complexity of freezing processes in trees. Diameter shrinkage, which indicated water fluxes within the stem, and acoustic emission analysis, which indicated cavitation events near the ice front upon freezing, were both related to minimum temperature, and upon thawing, related to vapor pressure deficit and soil temperature. These complex patterns, emphasizing the common mechanisms between frost and drought stress, shed new lights on understanding winter tree physiology.