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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • LandClim;
  • landscape model;
  • macrofossils;
  • paleoecology;
  • pollen;
  • species range;
  • Switzerland;
  • treeline

Abstract

Mountain vegetation is strongly affected by temperature and is expected to shift upwards with climate change. Dynamic vegetation models are often used to assess the impact of climate on vegetation and model output can be compared with paleobotanical data as a reality check. Recent paleoecological studies have revealed regional variation in the upward shift of timberlines in the Northern and Central European Alps in response to rapid warming at the Younger Dryas/Preboreal transition ca. 11 700 years ago, probably caused by a climatic gradient across the Alps. This contrasts with previous studies that successfully simulated the early Holocene afforestation in the (warmer) Central Alps with a chironomid-inferred temperature reconstruction from the (colder) Northern Alps. We use LandClim, a dynamic landscape vegetation model to simulate mountain forests under different temperature, soil and precipitation scenarios around Iffigsee (2065 m a.s.l.) a lake in the Northwestern Swiss Alps, and compare the model output with the paleobotanical records. The model clearly overestimates the upward shift of timberline in a climate scenario that applies chironomid-inferred July-temperature anomalies to all months. However, forest establishment at 9800 cal. BP at Iffigsee is successfully simulated with lower moisture availability and monthly temperatures corrected for stronger seasonality during the early Holocene. The model-data comparison reveals a contraction in the realized niche of Abies alba due to the prominent role of anthropogenic disturbance after ca. 5000 cal. BP, which has important implications for species distribution models (SDMs) that rely on equilibrium with climate and niche stability. Under future climate projections, LandClim indicates a rapid upward shift of mountain vegetation belts by ca. 500 m and treeline positions of ca. 2500 m a.s.l. by the end of this century. Resulting biodiversity losses in the alpine vegetation belt might be mitigated with low-impact pastoralism to preserve species-rich alpine meadows.