Variability, contingency and rapid change in recent subarctic alpine tree line dynamics


Ryan K. Danby (tel. +1 780 492 1295; fax +1 780 492 9234; e-mail


  • 1Boundaries between forest and tundra ecosystems, tree lines, are expected to advance in altitude and latitude in response to climate warming. However, varied responses to 20th century warming suggest that in addition to temperature, tree line dynamics are mediated by species-specific traits and environmental conditions at landscape and local scales.
  • 2We examined recent tree line dynamics at six topographically different, but climatically similar, sites in south-west Yukon, Canada. Dendroecological techniques were used to reconstruct changes in density of the dominant tree species, white spruce (Picea glauca), and to construct static age distributions of willow (Salix spp.), one of two dominant shrub genera. Data were analysed to identify periods and rates of establishment and mortality and to relate these to past climate.
  • 3Tree line elevation and stand density increased significantly during the early to mid 20th century. However, this change was not uniform across sites. Spruce advanced rapidly on south-facing slopes and tree line rose 65–85 m in elevation. Tree line did not advance on north-facing slopes, but stand density increased 40–65%. Differences observed between aspects were due primarily to the differential presence of permafrost. Additional variability among sites was related to slope and vegetation type. Results were less conclusive for willow, but evidence for an advance was found at two sites.
  • 4Increases in stand density were strongly correlated with summer temperatures. The period of rapid change coincided with a 30-year period of above average temperatures, beginning in 1920. The highest correlations were obtained using a forward average of 30–50 years, supporting the hypothesis that tree line dynamics are controlled more by conditions influencing recruitment than by establishment alone.
  • 5The changes observed at several sites are suggestive of a threshold response and challenge the notion that tree lines respond gradually to climate warming. Overall, the results provide further evidence to support the idea that the pattern and timing of change is contingent on local, landscape, and regional-scale factors, as well as species’ biology.