Aim To evaluate the hypothesis that topographic features of high-elevation mountain environments govern spatial distribution and climate-driven dynamics of the forest.
Location Upper mountain forest stands (elevation range 1800–2600 m) in the mountains of southern Siberia.
Methods Archive maps, satellite and on-ground data from1960 to 2002 were used. Data were normalized to avoid bias caused by uneven distribution of topographic features (elevation, azimuth and slope steepness) within the analysed area. Spatial distribution of forest stands was analysed with respect to topography based on a digital elevation model (DEM).
Results Spatial patterns in mountain forests are anisotropic with respect to azimuth, slope steepness and elevation. At a given elevation, the majority of forests occupied slopes with greater than mean slope values. As the elevation increased, forests shifted to steeper slopes. The orientation of forest azimuth distribution changed clockwise with increase in elevation (the total shift was 120°), indicating a combined effect of wind and water stress on the observed forest patterns. Warming caused changes in the forest distribution patterns during the last four decades. The area of closed forests increased 1.5 times, which was attributed to increased stand density and tree migration. The migration rate was 1.5 ± 0.9 m year–1, causing a mean forest line shift of 63 ± 37 m. Along with upward migration, downward tree migration onto hill slopes was observed. Changes in tree morphology were also noted as widespread transformation of the prostrate forms of Siberian pine and larch into erect forms.
Main conclusions The spatial pattern of upper mountain forests as well as the response of forests to warming strongly depends on topographic relief features (elevation, azimuth and slope steepness). With elevation increase (and thus a harsher environment) forests shifted to steep wind-protected slopes. A considerable increase in the stand area and increased elevation of the upper forest line was observed coincident with the climate warming that was observed. Warming promotes migration of trees to areas that are less protected from winter desiccation and snow abrasion (i.e. areas with lower values of slope steepness). Climate-induced forest response has significantly modified the spatial patterns of high-elevation forests in southern Siberia during the last four decades, as well as tree morphology.