Moisture-mediated responsiveness of treeline shifts to global warming in the Himalayas

Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Nov;24(11):5549-5559. doi: 10.1111/gcb.14428. Epub 2018 Sep 14.


Among forest ecosystems, the alpine treeline ecotone can be considered to be a simplified model to study global ecology and climate change. Alpine treelines are expected to shift upwards in response to global warming given that tree recruitment and growth are assumed to be mainly limited by low temperatures. However, little is known whether precipitation and temperature interact to drive long-term Himalayan treeline dynamics. Tree growth is affected by spring rainfall in the central Himalayan treelines, being good locations for testing if, in addition to temperature, precipitation mediates treeline dynamics. To test this hypothesis, we reconstructed spatiotemporal variations in treeline dynamics in 20 plots located at six alpine treeline sites, dominated by two tree species (birch, fir), and situated along an east-west precipitation gradient in the central Himalayas. Our reconstructions evidenced that treelines shifted upward in response to recent climate warming, but their shift rates were primarily mediated by spring precipitation. The rate of upward shift was higher in the wettest eastern Himalayas, suggesting that its ascent rate was facilitated by spring precipitation. The drying tendency in association with the recent warming trends observed in the central Himalayas, however, will likely hinder an upslope advancement of alpine treelines and promote downward treeline shifts if moisture availability crosses a critical minimum threshold. Our study highlights the complexity of plant responses to climate and the need to consider multiple climate factors when analyzing treeline dynamics.

Keywords: Alpine treeline; central Himalayas; climate change; tree recruitment; treeline shift.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Global Warming*
  • Nepal
  • Plant Dispersal*
  • Rain*
  • Time Factors
  • Trees / physiology*