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

University dissertation from Sundsvall : Department of Natural Sciences

Abstract: Against the background of past, recent and future climate change, the present thesis addresses elevational shifts of alpine treelines in the Swedish Scandes. By definition, treeline refers to the elevation (m a.s.l.) at a specific site of the upper trees of a specific tree species, at least 2 m tall.Based on historical records, the first part of the thesis reports and analyzes the magnitude of treeline displacements for the main trees species (Betula pubescens ssp. czerepanovii, Picea abies and Pinus sylvestris) since the early 20th century. The study covered a large and heterogeneous region and more than 100 sites. Concurrent with temperature rise by c. 1.4 °C over the past century, maximum treeline advances of all species amount to about 200 m. That is virtually what should be predicted from the recorded temperature change over the same period of time. Thus, it appears that under ideal conditions, treelines respond in close equilibrium with air temperature evolution. However, over most parts of the landscape, conditions are not that ideal and treeline upshifts have therefore been much smaller. The main reason for that discrepancy was found to be topoclimatic constraints, i.e. the combined action of geomorphology, wind, snow distribution, soil depth, etc., which over large parts of the alpine landscape preclude treelines to reach their potential thermal limit.Recorded treeline advance by maximum 200 m or so over the past century emerges as a truly anomalous event in late Holocene vegetation history.The second part of the thesis is focused more on long-term changes of treelines and one specific and prevalent mechanism of treeline change. The first part of the thesis revealed that for Picea and Betula, treeline shift was accomplished largely by phenotypic transformation of old-established stunted and prostrate individuals (krummholz) growing high above the treeline. In obvious response to climate warming over the past century, such individuals have transformed into erect tree form, whereby the treeline (as defined here) has risen. As a means for deeper understanding of this mode of positional treeline change, extant clonal spruces, growing around the treeline, were radiocarbon dated from megafossil remains preserved in the soil underneath their canopies. It turned out that Picea abies in particular may attain almost eternal life due to its capability for vegetative reproduction and phenotypic plasticity. Some living clones were in fact inferred to have existed already 9500 years ago, and have thus persisted at the same spot throughout almost the entire Holocene. This contrasts with other tree species, which have left no living relicts from the early Holocene, when they actually grew equally high as the spruce. Thereafter they retracted by more than 300 m in elevation supporting that also on that temporal scale, treelines are highly responsive to climate change.The early appearance of Picea in the Scandes, suggests that Picea “hibernated” the last glacial phase much closer to Scandinavia than earlier thought. It has also immigrated to northern Sweden much earlier than the old-established wisdom.The experiences gained in this thesis should constitute essential components of any model striving to the project landscape ecological consequences of possible future climate shifts.