Post-Little Ice Age tree line rise and climate warming in the Swedish Scandes: a landscape ecological perspective


*Correspondence author:


  • 1Elevational tree line change in the southern Swedish Scandes was quantified for the period 1915–2007 and for two sub-periods 1915–1975 and 1975–2007. The study focused on Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii, Picea abies and Pinus sylvestris at a large number of sites distributed over an 8000-km2 area. The basic approach included revisitations of fixed sites (elevational belt transects) and measurements of tree line positions (m a.s.l.) during these three periods.
  • 2Over the past century, tree lines of all species rose at 95% of the studied localities, with means of 70–90 m. All three species displayed maximum upshifts by about 200 m, which manifests a near-perfect equilibrium with instrumentally recorded air temperature change. This magnitude of response was realized only in particular topographic situations, foremost wind-sheltered and steep concave slopes. Other sites, with more wind-exposed topoclimatic conditions, experienced lesser magnitudes of upshifts. Thus, spatial elevational tree line responses to climate change are markedly heterogeneous and site-dependent. Modelling of the future evolution of the forest-alpine tundra transition has to consider this fact. Even in a hypothetical case of substantial climate warming, tree lines are unlikely to advance on a broad front and a large proportion of the alpine tundra will remain treeless.
  • 3During the period 1975–2007, the tree lines of Picea and Pinus (in particular) advanced more rapidly than that of Betula towards the alpine region. These species-specific responses could signal a potential trajectory for the evolution of the ecotone in a warmer future. Thereby a situation with some resemblance with the relatively warm and dry early Holocene would emerge.
  • 4Substantial tree line upshifts over the past two to three decades coincide with air and soil warming during all seasons. This implies that both summer and winter temperatures have to be included in models of climate-driven tree line performance.
  • 5Synthesis. Maximum tree line rise by 200 m represents a unique trend break in the long-term Holocene tree line regression, which has been driven by average climate cooling for nearly 10 000 years. Tree line positions are well-restored to their pre-Little Ice Age positions. Recent tree line ascent is a truly anomalous event in Holocene vegetation history and possibly unprecedented for seven millennia.