Regional variability in the response of alpine treelines to climate change

A Correction to this article was published on 18 August 2020

This article has been updated

Abstract

The distributions of many high-elevation tree species have shifted as a result of recent climate change; however, there is substantial variability in the movement of alpine treelines at local to regional scales. In this study, we derive records of tree growth and establishment from nine alpine treeline ecotones in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, characterise the influence of seasonal climate variables on four tree species (Abies lasiocarpa, Larix lyallii, Picea engelmannii, Pinus albicaulis) and estimate the degree to which treeline movement in the twentieth century has lagged or exceeded the rate predicted by recent temperature warming. The growth and establishment records revealed a widespread increase in radial growth, establishment frequency and stand density beginning in the mid-twentieth century. Coinciding with a period of warming summer temperatures and favourable moisture availability, these changes appear to have supported upslope treeline advance at all sites (range, 0.23–2.00 m/year; mean, 0.83 + 0.67 m/year). However, relationships with seasonal climate variables varied between species, and the rates of treeline movement lagged those of temperature warming in most cases. These results indicate that future climate change impacts on treelines in the region are likely to be moderated by species composition and to occur more slowly than anticipated based on temperature warming alone.

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Change history

  • 18 August 2020

    The environmental lapse rate used to estimate historical treeline advance was incorrectly reported as 0.006����C/1000��m; a value of 0.006����C/m was used in the calculations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Parks Canada, Alberta Parks, and Fortress Mountain Ski Resort for access to field sites; the University of Calgary Biogeoscience Institute for logistical support; Hana Hermanek, Sonia Rondon and Stacey Sargent for assistance with field and lab work; and Andrew Trant for their feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript.

Data accessibility

The data used in this study will be made available through the online data repository system maintained by the University of Guelph.

Funding

This research was supported by an NSERC Discovery grant (ZMG); an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship, Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and Royal Canadian Geographic Society graduate research grant (ELD); and support from the University of Guelph Arboretum.

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RB, ELD, ZG and TK collected the data; ELD performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the study design and reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Emma L. Davis.

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Davis, E.L., Brown, R., Daniels, L. et al. Regional variability in the response of alpine treelines to climate change. Climatic Change 162, 1365–1384 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02743-0

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Keywords

  • Alpine treeline
  • Climate change
  • Dendrochronology
  • Subalpine forest
  • Tree establishment
  • Western Canada