Rapid responses of high-mountain vegetation to early Holocene environmental changes in the Swiss Alps


Willy Tinner (fax + 41 31 631 49 42; e-mail willy.tinner@ips.unibe.ch).


  • 1The Early Holocene sediment of a lake at tree line (Gouillé Rion, 2343 m a.s.l.) in the Swiss Central Alps was sampled for plant macrofossils. Thin (0.5 cm) slices, representing time intervals of c. 50 years each from 11 800 to 7800 cal. year bp, were analysed and the data compared with independent palaeoclimatic proxies to study vegetational responses to environmental change.
  • 2Alpine plant communities (e.g. with Salix herbacea) were established at 11 600–11 500 cal. year bp, when oxygen-isotope records showed that temperatures increased by c. 3–4 °C within decades. Larix decidua trees reached the site at c. 11 350 cal. year bp, probably in response to further warming by 1–2 °C. Forests dominated by L. decidua persisted until 9600 cal. year bp, when Pinus cembra became more important.
  • 3The dominance of Larix decidua for two millennia is explained by dry summer conditions, and possibly low winter temperatures, which favoured it over the late-successional Pinus cembra. Environmental conditions were a result of variations in the earth's orbit, leading to a maximum of summer and a minimum of winter solar radiation. Other heliophilous and drought-adapted species, such as Dryas octopetala and Juniperus nana, could persist in the open L. decidua forests, but were out-competed when the shade-tolerant P. cembra expanded.
  • 4The relative importance of Larix decidua decreased during periods of diminished solar radiation at 11 100, 10 100 and 9400 cal. year bp. Stable concentrations of L. decidua indicate that these percentage oscillations were caused by temporary increases of Pinus cembra, Dryas octopetala and Juniperus nana that can be explained by increases in moisture and/or decreases in summer temperature.
  • 5The final collapse of Larix decidua at 8400 cal. year bp was possibly related to abrupt climatic cooling as a consequence of a large meltwater input to the North Atlantic. Similarly, the temporary exclusion of Pinus cembra from tree line at 10 600–10 200 cal. year bp may be related to slowing down of thermohaline circulation at 10 700–10 300 cal. year bp.
  • 6Our results show that tree line vegetation was in dynamic equilibrium with climate, even during periods of extraordinarily rapid climatic change. They also imply that forecasted global warming may trigger rapid upslope movements of the tree line of up to 800 m within a few decades or centuries at most, probably inducing large-scale displacements of plant species as well as irrecoverable biodiversity losses.