Do Himalayan treelines respond to recent climate change? An evaluation of sensitivity indicators
- 1CEN Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, Institute of Geography, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
- 2Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal
- 3Institute of Botany and Landscape Ecology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany
- 4Institute of Physical Geography and Soil Science, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
Abstract. Climate warming is expected to induce treelines to advance to higher elevations. Empirical studies in diverse mountain ranges, however, give evidence of both advancing alpine treelines and rather insignificant responses. The inconsistency of findings suggests distinct differences in the sensitivity of global treelines to recent climate change. It is still unclear where Himalayan treeline ecotones are located along the response gradient from rapid dynamics to apparently complete inertia. This paper reviews the current state of knowledge regarding sensitivity and response of Himalayan treelines to climate warming, based on extensive field observations, published results in the widely scattered literature, and novel data from ongoing research of the present authors.
Several sensitivity indicators such as treeline type, treeline form, seed-based regeneration, and growth patterns are evaluated. Since most Himalayan treelines are anthropogenically depressed, observed advances are largely the result of land use change. Near-natural treelines are usually krummholz treelines, which are relatively unresponsive to climate change. Nevertheless, intense recruitment of treeline trees suggests a great potential for future treeline advance. Competitive abilities of seedlings within krummholz thickets and dwarf scrub heaths will be a major source of variation in treeline dynamics. Tree growth–climate relationships show mature treeline trees to be responsive to temperature change, in particular in winter and pre-monsoon seasons. High pre-monsoon temperature trends will most likely drive tree growth performance in the western and central Himalaya. Ecological niche modelling suggests that bioclimatic conditions for a range expansion of treeline trees will be created during coming decades.