Treeline dynamics in short and long term perspectives : observational and historical evidence from the southern Swedish Scandes

Abstract: Treelines in high-mountain regions are constrained by heat deficiency, although the working mechanisms are still not entirely understood. Observational and paleoecological studies on treeline performance may contribute to increased understanding of the treeline phenomenon in general. The present thesis addresses elevational shifts of alpine treelines in the Swedish Scandes. By various analytical tools, the studies embrace widely different temporal scales.The concept treeline refers to the elevation (m a.s.l.) at a specific site of the upper individual tree of a certain tree species, at least 2 m tall. All the principal tree species in the Scandes are concerned, i.e. mountain birch (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii), Norway spruce (Picea abies) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).Paper I deals with regional treeline dynamics at more than 100 sites over the past 100 years. Concurrent with temperature rise by c. 1.4 °C over the same period, maximum treeline advances of all species amount to about 200 m. Thus, under ideal conditions, treelines respond in close equilibrium with air temperature evolution. However, over most parts of the landscape, treeline upshifts have been much smaller than 200 m, which relates to the combined action of geomorphology, wind, snow distribution and soil depth. After 1975, the birch has lost its role as the most rapidly advancing tree species, being superseded by pine and spruce.Paper II is a short-term (2005/2007-2010/2011) study of mountain birch treeline performance along a regional maritimity-continentality gradient. Upshift by 3.0 yr-1 in the maritime part of the gradient contrasts to retreat by 0.4 m yr-1 in the continental part. In the latter area, earlier and more complete melting of late-lying snow patches has seemingly progressed to a state when soil drought sets back the vigour of existing birches and precludes sexual regeneration and upslope advance of the treeline. In the maritime area, extensive and deep snow packs still exist above the treeline and constrain its position, although some release is taking place in the current warm climate.Paper III explores treeline change by phenotypic transformation of old-established stunted and prostrate spruce individuals (krummholz) growing high above the treeline and is based on analyses of radiocarbon-dated megafossils, preserved in the soil underneath clonal groups of spruce. Living spruce clones, which in some cases may date back to the early Holocene (9500 cal. yr BP), suggests that spruce immigrated from “cryptic” ice age refugia much closer to Scandinavia than conventionally thought. As the krummholz form presupposes open and windy habitats, it is inferred that permanently open spots prevailed in the high-mountain landscape even during periods when treelines in general were much higher than today.Paper IV reports radiocarbon dates of wood samples, retrieved from newly exposed glacier forefields at three main sites, located high above the modern treelines and embracing the entire Swedish Scandes. It appears that pine colonized early emerging nunataks already during the Late Glacial. Around 9600-9500 cal. yr BP a first massive wave of tree establishment, birch and pine, took place in “empty” glacier cirques. Both species grew 400-600 m above their present day treeline position and accordingly, the summer temperatures may have been 3.5 °C warmer than present (uncorrected for land uplift). During the entire interval 9600 to 4400 cal. yr BP, birch prospered 100-150 m above the uppermost pines. In response to Neoglacial cooling, treelines of both birch and pine descended until their final disappearance from the record 4400 and 5900 cal. yr BP, respectively. Thereafter, these habitats experienced increased snow accumulation and glacier inception.