Our knowledge on tree responses to drought is mainly based on short-term manipulation experiments which do not capture any possible long-term adjustments in this response. Therefore, historical water channels in inner-Alpine dry valleys were used as century-long irrigation experiments to investigate adjustments in tree growth to contrasting water supply. This involved quantifying the tree-ring growth of irrigated and non-irrigated (control) Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) in Valais (Switzerland), as well as European larch (Larix decidua Mill.) and black pine (Pinus nigra Arnold) in Vinschgau (Italy). Furthermore, the adjustments in radial growth of Scots pine and European larch to an abrupt stop in irrigation were analyzed. Irrigation promoted the radial growth of all tree species investigated compared to the control: (1) directly through increased soil water availability, and (2) indirectly through increased soil nutrients and humus contents in the irrigated plots. Irrigation led to a full elimination of growth responses to climate for European larch and black pine, but not for Scots pine, which might become more sensitive to drought with increasing tree size in Valais. For the control trees, the response of the latewood increment to water availability in July/August has decreased in recent decades for all species, but increased in May for Scots pine only. The sudden irrigation stop caused a drop in radial growth to a lower level for Scots pine or similar level for larch compared to the control for up to ten years. However, both tree species were then able to adjust to the new conditions and subsequently grew with similar (Scots pine) or even higher growth rates(larch) than the control. To estimate the impact of climate change on future forest development, the duration of manipulation experiments should be on longer time scales in order to capture adjustment processes and feedback mechanisms of forest ecosystems. (C) 2014 Published by Elsevier B.V.
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