Widespread shifts in the demographic structure of subalpine forests in the Sierra Nevada, California, 1934 to 2007


Christopher R. Dolanc, Department of Plant Sciences and Ecology Graduate Group, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA. E-mail: crdolanc@ucdavis.edu


Aim  Many climate-linked vegetation models predict major contraction of subalpine forests within the next 100 years, which would require a relatively rapid replacement of high-elevation species by lower-elevation species over large portions of subalpine forest. We tested this prediction by comparing empirical data from a historic data set with data collected from re-sampled sites from 2007–09.

Location  Central Sierra Nevada, CA, USA, 2300–3400 m elevation.

Methods  We re-sampled 139 undisturbed historical vegetation plots across 5500 km2 originally sampled from 1929–34 in the subalpine zone of the Sierra Nevada, and compared historical with current forest structure and composition. We compared historic and modern climatic conditions using two high-elevation climate stations nearby.

Results  Subalpine forests experienced a net increase in tree stem density of 30.4%, including a 63.3% increase in small trees. Six of eight tree species showed statistically significant increases in small tree density, including species with distributions at both the upper and lower boundaries of subalpine. Increases in small tree density were partly offset by a 20% decrease in large trees. These shifts were significant throughout the landscape of our study area. Modern stand composition was indistinguishable from historical composition. Daily minimum temperature (+ 1.2°C) and precipitation (+ 15–48%) both increased during the same period.

Main conclusions  Warming temperatures plus steady to increasing precipitation have led to less stressful conditions for recruitment and survival of small trees, and are probably contributing to increased mortality of large trees. Tree abundance and composition in the subalpine has not changed in the direction predicted by vegetation models linked to future climate scenarios. Our results underline the fundamental role that moisture balance plays in structuring mediterranean-zone montane forests. Future shifts in vegetation composition and structure from these regions are likely to depend on interactions between water balance and disturbance factors like fire, insects and disease.