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Drought limitation on tree growth at the Northern Hemisphere’s highest tree line

Lyu, Lixin, Zhang, Qi-Bin, Pellatt, Marlow G., Büntgen, Ulf, Li, Mai-He, Cherubini, Paolo
Dendrochronologia 2019 v.53 pp. 40-47
altitude, dendrochronology, drought, ecotones, evapotranspiration, global warming, relative humidity, solar radiation, temperature, tree growth, treeline, China
The alpine tree line is generally assumed to be controlled by low temperatures, and thus to be experiencing an upward shift under global warming. As global temperatures rise, tree growth at the tree line could either increase if temperature is the limiting factor or decrease if a warming-induced loss of moisture limits growth. Here, we use dendrochronological techniques to understand the abiotic drivers of the Northern Hemisphere’s highest tree line ecotones on the southern Tibetan Plateau (TP). Ring-width measurements from three juniper sites between 4680 and 4900 m asl were significantly and negatively correlated with May-June-July evapotranspiration (ET0), and positively correlated with relative humidity and other moisture-related meteorological variables. At the same time, ring widths were negatively correlated with temperature means and sunshine rates. Our results highlight the common sensitivity of tree growth to moisture variations despite the differential growth trends occurring since 1850 (end of the Industrial Revolution) at the three tree line ecotones. These findings indicate that low temperatures may not be the sole driving force behind tree growth and the range dynamics of alpine tree lines. Tree lines in the dry parts of the TP and possibly also beyond are likely to retreat rather than to advance in a warmer world due to water limitations.