Institute of Botany
High Elevation Treeline Research
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 actual position by not more then 100 m in elevation. A detailed discussion of the treeline issue can be found in:
Our activities go in several directions. They include treering studies across the treeline ecotone (see ref. below), microclimate measurements at various latitudes and an assessment of the carbohydrate supply status at the tree limit.
The worldwide treeline temperature assessment nears its end by 2001, when year-round data from ca. 30 different treeline sites around the globe will be 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 where natural treelines occure at lower elevations (higher temperatures; e.g. Hawaii).
In a work on carbohydrate pools we compare treelines in Mexico, the central Alps and in N-Sweden (Abisko). We see no decline of reserves as one approaches the existential limit of trees, in fact, carbohydrate and lipid stores reach a maximum at tree limit. Thus, it seems unlikely that carbon limitation is a cause of treeline formation.