• Forest tundra;
  • isostatic uplift;
  • macrofossil analysis;
  • Picea glauca;
  • shrub tundra;
  • subarctic Québec;
  • tree colonization;
  • tree line;
  • tree-ring analysis;
  • white spruce


Aim  The species-specific response of tree-line species to climatic forcing is a crucial topic in modelling climate-driven ecosystem dynamics. In northern Québec, Canada, black spruce (Picea mariana) is the dominant species at the tree line, but white spruce (Picea glauca) also occurs along the maritime coast of Hudson Bay, and is expanding along the coast and on lands that have recently emerged because of isostatic uplift. Here we outline the present distribution, structure, dynamics and recent spread of white spruce from the tree line up to its northernmost position in the shrub tundra along the Hudson Bay coast. We aimed to obtain a minimum date of the arrival of the species in the area and to evaluate its dynamics relative to recent climate changes.

Location  White spruce populations and individuals were sampled along a latitudinal transect from the tree line to the northernmost individual in the shrub tundra along the Hudson Bay coast and in the Nastapoka archipelago in northern Québec and Nunavut, Canada (56°06′–56°32′ N).

Methods  White spruce populations were mapped, and the position, dimension, growth form and origin (seed or layering) of every individual recorded. Tree-ring analyses of living and dead trees allowed an estimation of the population structure, past recruitment, growth trends and growth rate of the species. A macrofossil analysis was performed of the organic horizon of the northernmost white spruce stands and individuals. Radiocarbon dates of white spruce remains and organic matter were obtained. The rate of isostatic uplift was assessed by radiocarbon dating of drifted wood fragments.

Results  The first recorded establishment of white spruce was almost synchronous at all sites and occurred around ad 1660. Spruce recruitment was rather continuous at the tree line, while it showed a gap in the northern shrub tundra during the first decades of the 19th century. A vigorous, recent establishment of seedlings was observed in the shrub tundra; only wind-exposed, low krummholz (stunted individuals) did not show any sexual regeneration. A period of suppressed growth occurred from the 1810s to the 1850s in most sites. A growth increase was evident from the second half of the 19th century and peaked in the 1880s and the 20th century. A shift from stunted to tree growth form has occurred since the mid-19th century. No sample associated with white spruce remains gave a date older than 300 14C years bp [calibrated age (cal.) ad 1430–1690].

Main conclusions  White spruce probably arrived recently in the coastal tundra of Hudson Bay due to a delayed post-glacial spread. The arrival of the species probably occurred during the Little Ice Age. The established individuals survived by layering during unfavourable periods, but acted as nuclei for sexual recruitment almost continuously, except in the northernmost and most exposed sites. Warmer periods were marked by strong seedling recruitment and a shift to tree growth form. Unlike white spruce, black spruce showed no evidence of an ongoing change in growth form and sexual recruitment. Ecological requirements and recent history of tree-line species should be taken into account in order to understand the present dynamics of high-latitude ecosystems.