No evidence of canopy-scale leaf thermoregulation to cool leaves below air temperature across a range of forest ecosystems

Christopher J. Still, Gerald Page, Bharat Rastogi, Daniel M. Griffith, Donald M. Aubrecht, Youngil Kim, Sean P. Burns, Chad V. Hanson, Hyojung Kwon, Linnia Hawkins, Frederick C. Meinzer, Sanna Sevanto, Dar Roberts, Mike Goulden, Stephanie Pau, Matteo Detto, Brent Helliker, Andrew D. Richardson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Understanding and predicting the relationship between leaf temperature (Tleaf) and air temperature (Tair) is essential for projecting responses to a warming climate, as studies suggest that many forests are near thermal thresholds for carbon uptake. Based on leaf measurements, the limited leaf homeothermy hypothesis argues that daytime Tleaf is maintained near photosynthetic temperature optima and below damaging temperature thresholds. Specifically, leaves should cool below Tair at higher temperatures (i.e., > ∼25–30°C) leading to slopes <1 in Tleaf /Tair relationships and substantial carbon uptake when leaves are cooler than air. This hypothesis implies that climate warming will be mitigated by a compensatory leaf cooling response. A key uncertainty is understanding whether such thermoregulatory behavior occurs in natural forest canopies. We present an unprecedented set of growing season canopy-level leaf temperature (Tcan) data measured with thermal imaging at multiple well-instrumented forest sites in North and Central America. Our data do not support the limited homeothermy hypothesis: canopy leaves are warmer than air during most of the day and only cool below air in mid to late afternoon, leading to Tcan/Tair slopes >1 and hysteretic behavior. We find that the majority of ecosystem photosynthesis occurs when canopy leaves are warmer than air. Using energy balance and physiological modeling, we show that key leaf traits influence leaf-air coupling and ultimately the Tcan/Tair relationship. Canopy structure also plays an important role in Tcan dynamics. Future climate warming is likely to lead to even greater Tcan, with attendant impacts on forest carbon cycling and mortality risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2205682119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Sep 20 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • canopy temperature
  • homeothermy
  • leaf temperature
  • leaf traits
  • photosynthesis


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