In the northern high latitudes, alternative hypotheses with regards to how warming-related shifts in seasonality influence ecosystem productivity exist. Increased plant growth associated with a longer growing season may enhance ecosystem productivity, but shifts to earlier springs may also negatively influence soil moisture status and productivity during the peak of the growing season. Here, we analyzed nearly three decades (1982-2008) of observational records and derived products, including satellite microwave and optical imagery as well as upscaled ecosystem flux observations, to better understand how shifts in seasonality impact hydrology and productivity in the North American boreal forests. We identified a dominant adverse influence of earlier springs on peak summer forest greenness, actual evapotranspiration and productivity at interannual time scales across the drier western and central sections of the North American boreal forests. In the vast regions where this spring onset mechanism operates, ecosystem productivity gains from earlier springs during the early portion of the growing season are effectively cancelled through corresponding losses in the later portion. Our results also indicate that recent decadal shifts towards earlier springs and associated drying in the midst of the growing season over western North American boreal forests may have contributed to the reported declines in summer productivity and increases in tree mortality and fire activity. With projections of accelerated northern high-latitude warming and associated shifts to earlier springs, persistent soil moisture deficits in peak summer may be an effective mechanism for regional-scale boreal forest dieback through their strong influence on productivity, tree mortality and disturbance dynamics. © 2013 IOP Publishing Ltd.