• Alpine plants;
  • climate;
  • leaf area index;
  • logistic function;
  • net primary productivity;
  • soil nutrients;
  • Tibetan Plateau;
  • transect


Aim  Our aims were to quantify climatic and soil controls on net primary productivity (NPP) and leaf area index (LAI) along subtropical to alpine gradients where the vegetation remains relatively undisturbed, and investigate whether NPP and LAI converge towards threshold-like logistic patterns associated with climatic and soil variables that would help us to verify and parameterize process models for predicting future ecosystem behaviour under global environmental change.

Location  Field data were collected from 22 sites along the Tibetan Alpine Vegetation Transects (TAVT) during 1999–2000. The TAVT included the altitudinal transect on the eastern slope of the Gongga Mountains in the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, with altitudes from 1900 m to 3700 m, and the longitudinal-latitudinal transect in the Central Tibetan Plateau, of approximately 1000 km length and 40 km width.

Methods  LAI was measured as the product of foliage biomass multiplied by the ratio of specific leaf area. NPP in forests and shrub communities was estimated as the sum of increases in standing crops of live vegetation using recent stem growth rate and leaf lifespan. NPP in grasslands was estimated from the above-ground maximum live biomass. We measured the soil organic carbon (C) and total and available nitrogen (N) contents and their pool sizes by conventional methods. Mean temperatures for the year, January and July and annual precipitation were estimated from available meteorological stations by interpolation or simulation. The threshold-like logistic function was used to model the relationships of LAI and NPP with climatic and soil variables.

Results  Geographically, NPP and LAI both significantly decreased with increasing latitude (P < 0.02), but increased with increasing longitude (P < 0.01). Altitudinal trends in NPP and LAI showed different patterns. NPP generally decreased with increasing altitude in a linear relationship (r2 = 0.73, P < 0.001), whereas LAI showed a negative quadratic relationship with altitude (r2 = 0.58, P < 0.001). Temperature and precipitation, singly or in combination, explained 60–68% of the NPP variation with logistic relationships, while the soil organic C and total N variables explained only 21–46% of the variation with simple linear regressions of log-transformed data. LAI showed significant logistic relationships with both climatic and soil variables, but the data from alpine spruce-fir sites diverged greatly from the modelled patterns associated with temperature and precipitation. Soil organic C storage had the strongest correlation with LAI (r2 = 0.68, P < 0.001).

Main conclusions  In response to climatic gradients along the TAVT, LAI and NPP across diverse vegetation types converged towards threshold-like logistic patterns consistent with the general distribution patterns of live biomass both above-ground and below-ground found in our earlier studies. Our analysis further revealed that climatic factors strongly limited the NPP variations along the TAVT because the precipitation gradient characterized not only the vegetation distribution but also the soil N conditions of the natural ecosystems. LAI generally increased with increasing precipitation and was well correlated with soil organic C and total N variables. The interaction between LAI growth and soil N availability would appear to have important implications for ecosystem structure and function of alpine spruce-fir forests. Convergence towards logistic patterns in dry matter production of plants in the TAVT suggests that alpine plant growth would increase in a nonlinear response to global warming.