Alpine treeline ecotone stasis in the face of recent climate change and disturbance by fire Academic Article uri icon


  • How species respond to climate change will depend on biological characteristics, species physiological limits, traits (such as dispersal), and interactions with disturbance. We examine multi-decadal shifts in the distribution of trees at the alpine treeline in response to regional warming and repeated disturbance by fire in the Victorian Alps, south-east Australia. Alpine treelines are composed of Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila (Snow Gum, Myrtaceae) species. The location and basal girth of all trees and saplings were recorded across treelines at four mountains in 2002 and 2018. We quantify changes in treeline position (sapling recruitment above treeline) over time in relation to warming and disturbance by fire, and examine changes in stand structure below treeline (stand density, size class analyses). Short-distance advance of the treeline occurred between 2002 and 2018, but was largely restricted to areas that were unburned during this period. No saplings were seen above treeline after two fires, despite evidence that saplings were common pre-fire. Below treeline, subalpine woodland stands were largely resilient to fire; trees resprouted from lignotubers. However, small trees were reduced in number in woodlands when burned twice within a decade. Population dynamics at the alpine treeline were responsive to recent climate change, but other factors (e.g. disturbance) are crucial to understand recruitment trends. Establishment of saplings above treeline was largely restricted to unburned areas. These results indicate fire is a strong demographic filter on treeline dynamics; there is a clear need to frame alpine treeline establishment processes beyond just being a response to climate warming. Long lag periods in treeline change may be expected where recurrent disturbance is a feature of the landscape.


publication date

  • 2020