• Climate change;
  • CSR theory;
  • disturbance;
  • diversity;
  • Fennoscandia;
  • functional composition;
  • herbivory;
  • productivity;
  • tundra;
  • vegetation dynamics


Aim  We test how productivity, disturbance rate, plant functional composition and species richness gradients control changes in the composition of high-latitude vegetation during recent climatic warming.

Location  Northern Fennoscandia, Europe.

Methods  We resampled tree line ecotone vegetation sites sampled 26 years earlier. To quantify compositional changes, we used generalized linear models to test relationships between compositional changes and environmental gradients.

Results  Compositional changes in species abundances are positively related to the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI)-based estimate of productivity gradient and to geomorphological disturbance. Competitive species in fertile sites show the greatest changes in abundance, opposed to negligible changes in infertile sites. Change in species richness is negatively related to initial richness, whereas geomorphological disturbance has positive effects on change in richness. Few lowland species have moved towards higher elevations.

Main conclusions  The sensitivity of vegetation to climate change depends on a complex interplay between productivity, physical and biotic disturbances, plant functional composition and richness. Our results suggest that vegetation on productive sites, such as herb-rich deciduous forests at low altitudes, is more sensitive to climate warming than alpine tundra vegetation where grazing may have strong buffering effects. Geomorphological disturbance promotes vegetation change under climatic warming, whereas high diversity has a stabilizing effect.