CONTRASTED DYNAMICS OF NORTHERN LABRADOR TREE LINES CAUSED BY CLIMATE CHANGE AND MIGRATIONAL LAG

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Abstract

The northern Québec–Labrador tree lines are the most climatically stressed tree ecosystems of eastern North America. In particular, white spruce (Picea glauca) tree line populations distributed between 56° N and 58° N and 61° W and 66° W show contrasted responses to recent changes in climate according to their geographic position relative to the Labrador Sea. Along the coast, the northernmost latitudinal and altitudinal tree lines responded positively to warming over the last 50 years with invading spruce several tens of meters above the current tree line. In contrast, white spruce tree lines across the wind-exposed Labrador plateau are located much higher in altitude and have receded a few tens of meters beginning around AD 1740–1750 and have not yet recovered. Whereas no field evidence of recent fire and insect damage was found, all inland tree line stands were progressively damaged likely due to mechanical defoliation of wind-exposed trees. Massive tree death in the 19th century caused a reduction in the number of seed-bearing trees, and declining tree lines were not replenished by seedlings. Recent warming reported for northern latitudes has not been strong enough to change the regressive tree line trajectory in interior Labrador. However, white spruce expansion above coastal tree line in the northernmost forest site in Labrador is in line with current climatic trends. It is hypothesized that the species is still advancing toward its potential tree line higher in altitude due to delayed postglacial migration. The slow advance of white spruce in northernmost coastal Labrador is likely caused by the rugged topography of the Torngat-Kaumajet-Kiglapait mountains.

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