High elevation treeline


If one considers the high elevation treeline as a global phenomenon, many local drivers, which dominated the debate in the past, become less significant, they become modulators of a more fundamental, common cause. Our working hypothesis is that the major driver of treeline formation is the ability to form new structures, rather than the provision of raw materials for these structures. In other words, we suggest that the treeline is a sink (growth) rather then a source (photosynthesis) driven phenomenon, with temperature representing the single most important determinant. We do not question the influence of other factors, but we consider them to represent a suite of regional peculiarities, which may affect the rate of tree growth, but not the actual position of the treeline.

The worldwide treeline temperature assessment ended by 2001, when year-round data from ca. 30 different treeline sites around the globe became available. As a standard procedure we measure root-zone temperature at 10 cm depth in the shade of tree crowns at the treeline using Tidbit (Onset Corp.) data loggers. Currently available data from 90 % of the stations average at seasonal mean ground temperatures of ca 6.5 C, with very little site to site variation, irrespective of latitude (minimum of 5.5 C on Mexican volcanos at 4000 m and maximum at some maritime temperate zone treelines of ca 7.5 C). The seasonal mean proved to be a better predictor of treeline position than warmest month temperatures or a suite of thermal sums tested. There are regions with no suitable treeline taxa hence the regional tree limit does not represent biologically the life form limit, as can be shown by the successional establishment of exotic tree taxa of higher elevation (e.g. Hawaii).

We see no decline of reserves as one approaches the existential limit of trees, in fact, carbohydrate and lipid stores reach a maximum at the tree limit. Thus, it seems unlikely that carbon limitation is a cause of treeline formation.

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