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Keywords:

  • Climate;
  • growth;
  • forest limit;
  • timberline;
  • alpine ecology;
  • mountains

Abstract

Aim  At a coarse scale, the treelines of the world's mountains seem to follow a common isotherm, but the evidence for this has been indirect so far. Here we aim at underpinning this with facts.

Location  We present the results of a data-logging campaign at 46 treeline sites between 68° N and 42° S.

Methods  We measured root-zone temperatures with an hourly resolution over 1–3 years per site between 1996 and 2003.

Results  Disregarding taxon-, landuse- or fire-driven tree limits, high altitude climatic treelines are associated with a seasonal mean ground temperature of 6.7 °C (±0.8 SD; 2.2 K amplitude of means for different climatic zones), a surprisingly narrow range. Temperatures are higher (7–8 °C) in the temperate and Mediterranean zone treelines, and are lower in equatorial treelines (5–6 °C) and in the subarctic and boreal zone (6–7 °C). While air temperatures are higher than soil temperatures in warm periods, and are lower than soil temperatures in cold periods, daily means of air and soil temperature are almost the same at 6–7 °C, a physics driven coincidence with the global mean temperature at treeline. The length of the growing season, thermal extremes or thermal sums have no predictive value for treeline altitude on a global scale. Some Mediterranean (Fagus spp.) and temperate South Hemisphere treelines (Nothofagus spp.) and the native treeline in Hawaii (Metrosideros) are located at substantially higher isotherms and represent genus-specific boundaries rather than boundaries of the life-form tree. In seasonal climates, ground temperatures in winter (absolute minima) reflect local snow pack and seem uncritical.

Main conclusions  The data support the hypothesis of a common thermal threshold for forest growth at high elevation, but also reflect a moderate region and substantial taxonomic influence.