Characterization of an alpine tree line using airborne LiDAR data and physiological modeling



Understanding what environmental drivers control the position of the alpine tree line is important for refining our understanding of plant stress and tree development, as well as for climate change studies. However, monitoring the location of the tree line position and potential movement is difficult due to cost and technical challenges, as well as a lack of a clear boundary. Advanced remote sensing technologies such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) offer significant potential to map short individual tree crowns within the transition zone despite the lack of predictive capacity. Process-based forest growth models offer a complementary approach by quantifying the environmental stresses trees experience at the tree line, allowing transition zones to be defined and ultimately mapped. In this study, we investigate the role remote sensing and physiological, ecosystem-based modeling can play in the delineation of the alpine tree line. To do so, we utilize airborne LiDAR data to map tree height and stand density across a series of altitudinal gradients from below to above the tree line within the Swiss National Park (SNP), Switzerland. We then utilize a simple process-based model to assess the importance of seasonal variations on four climatically related variables that impose non-linear constraints on photosynthesis. Our results indicate that all methods predict the tree line to within a 50 m altitudinal zone and indicate that aspect is not a driver of significant variations in tree line position in the region. Tree cover, rather than tree height is the main discriminator of the tree line at higher elevations. Temperatures in fall and spring are responsible for the major differences along altitudinal zones, however, changes in evaporative demand also control plant growth at lower altitudes. Our results indicate that the two methods provide complementary information on tree line location and, when combined, provide additional insights into potentially endangered forest/grassland transition zones.