Sensitivity and response of northern hemisphere altitudinal and polar treelines to environmental change at landscape and local scales

Authors

  • Friedrich-Karl Holtmeier,

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Münster, Institute of Landscape Ecology, Robert-Koch-Straße 26, D-48149 Münster, Germany,
      Correspondence: Friedrich-Karl Holtmeier, Institute of Landscape Ecology, Robert-Koch-Straße 26, D-48149 Münster, Germany. E-mail: fkholtmeier@web.de
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  • Gabriele Broll

    1. Division of Geo- and Agroecology, ISPA, University of Vechta, POB 1553, D-49364 Vechta, Germany
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Correspondence: Friedrich-Karl Holtmeier, Institute of Landscape Ecology, Robert-Koch-Straße 26, D-48149 Münster, Germany. E-mail: fkholtmeier@web.de

ABSTRACT

The sensitivity and response of northern hemisphere altitudinal and polar treelines to environmental change are increasingly discussed in terms of climate change, often forgetting that climate is only one aspect of environmental variation. As treeline heterogeneity increases from global to regional and smaller scales, assessment of treeline sensitivity at the landscape and local scales requires a more complex approach than at the global scale. The time scale (short-, medium-, long-term) also plays an important role when considering treeline sensitivity. The sensitivity of the treeline to a changing environment varies among different types of treeline. Treelines controlled mainly by orographic influences are not very susceptible to the effects of warming climates. Greatest sensitivity can be expected in anthropogenic treelines after the cessation of human activity. However, tree invasion into former forested areas above the anthropogenic forest limit is controlled by site conditions, and in particular, by microclimates and soils. Apart from changes in tree physiognomy, the spontaneous advance of young growth of forest-forming tree species into present treeless areas within the treeline ecotone and beyond the tree limit is considered to be the best indicator of treeline sensitivity to environmental change. The sensitivity of climatic treelines to climate warming varies both in the local and regional topographical conditions. Furthermore, treeline history and its after-effects also play an important role. The sensitivity of treelines to changes in given factors (e.g. winter snow pack, soil moisture, temperature, evaporation, etc.) may vary among areas with differing climatic characteristics. In general, forest will not advance in a closed front but will follow sites that became more favourable to tree establishment under the changed climatic conditions.

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