There have been many attempts to model the impacts of climate change on the distributions of temperate tree species, but empirical analyses of the effects of climate on the distribution and abundance of tree species have lagged far behind the models. Here, we used forest inventory data to characterize variation in adult tree abundance along climate gradients for the 24 most common tree species in the northeastern United States. The two components of our measure of species abundance--local frequency vs. relative abundance--showed dramatically different patterns of variation along gradients of mean annual temperature and precipitation. Local frequency (i.e., the percentage of plots in a given climate in which a species occurred) varied strongly for all 24 species, particularly as a function of temperature. Relative abundance when present in a plot, on the other hand, was effectively constant for most species right up to their estimated climatic range limits. Although the range limits for both temperature and precipitation were quite broad for all of the species, the range of climates within which a species was common (i.e., high frequency) was much narrower. Because frequency in sites within a given climate shows a strong sensitivity to temperature, at least, this suggests that the processes determining canopy tree recruitment on new sites also vary strongly with climate.
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