In the context of global warming, the terrestrial ecosystem productivity over the Northern Hemisphere presents a substantially enhanced trend. The magnitude of summer vegetation maximum growth, known as peak growth, remains only partially understood for its role in regulating changes in vegetation productivity. This study aimed to estimate the spatiotemporal dynamics of the length of growing season (LOS) and maximum growth magnitude (MAG) over Northeast China (NEC) using a long-term satellite record of normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) for the period 1982–2015, and quantifying their relative contribution to the long-term trend and inter-annual variability (IAV) of vegetation productivity. Firstly, the key phenological metrics, including MAG and start and end of growing season (SOS, EOS), were derived. Secondly, growing season vegetation productivity, measured as the Summary of Vegetation Index (VIsum), was obtained by cumulating NDVI values. Thirdly, the relative impacts of LOS and MAG on the trend and IAV in VIsum were explored using the relative importance (RI) method at pixel and vegetation cover type level. For the entire NEC, LOS, and MAG exhibited a slightly decreasing trend and a weak increasing trend, respectively, thus resulting in an insignificant change in VIsum. The temporal phases of VIsum presented a consistent pace with LOS, but changed asynchronously with MAG. There was an underlying cycle of about 10 years in the changes of LOS, MAG, and VIsum. At a regional scale, VIsum tended to maintain a rising trend in the northern coniferous forest and grassland in western and southern NEC. The spatial distribution of the temporal trends of LOS and MAG generally show a contrasting pattern, in which LOS duration is expected to shorten (negative trend) in the central cropland and in some southwestern grasslands (81.5% of the vegetated area), while MAG would increase (positive trend) in croplands, southern grasslands, and northern coniferous forests (16.5%). The correlation index for the entire NEC suggested that LOS was negatively associated with MAG, indicating that the extended vegetation growth duration would result in a lower growth peak and vice versa. Across the various vegetation types, LOS was a substantial factor in controlling both the trend and IAV of VIsum (RI = 75%). There was an opposite spatial pattern in the relative contribution of LOS and MAG to VIsum, where LOS dominated in the northern coniferous forests and in the eastern broadleaf forests, with MAG mainly impacting croplands and the western grasslands (RI = 27%). Although LOS was still the key factor controlling the trend and IAV of VIsum during the study period, this situation may change in the case peak growth amplitude gradually increases in the future.
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