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Winter damage is more important than summer temperature for maintaining the krummholz growth form above alpine treeline

Cite this dataset

Maher, Colin T.; Nelson, Cara R.; Larson, Andrew J. (2019). Winter damage is more important than summer temperature for maintaining the krummholz growth form above alpine treeline [Dataset]. Dryad.


1. Understanding the processes that control alpine treelines, the elevational limits of tree growth forms, has been a central question in ecology and is growing in importance with concern over climate change. Cool summer air temperatures are currently thought to be the ultimate limiter of upright tree growth at alpine treelines globally. However, winter damage has long been recognized as a shaping force near alpine treelines. Low-growing krummholz growth forms provide an opportunity to test hypotheses about the controls of upright growth in environments above current treelines.

2. To distinguish between effects of growing season temperature, winter damage and their interaction on preventing upright growth in krummholz, we conducted a field experiment on krummholz growth forms of Pinus albicaulis over the summer and winter of 2015-2016 at 10 mountain top sites in the Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, USA. We experimentally manipulated four factors using a fully crossed design: shoot position (natural low position in the krummholz mat vs. propped up above the krummholz mat), summer warming (warming chamber vs. ambient), winter exposure (shelter cage vs. exposed), and elevation position (local high vs. low krummholz limits). We also conducted an observational study of the climatic conditions associated with recent natural emergent stem establishment from krummholz. 

3. Experimentally propped shoots that were exposed in winter experienced the highest mortality (10-50%), while propped shoots in shelter cages and shoots located within the krummholz mat, whether caged or not, had low mortality (0-10%). Summer warming had little influence on shoot mortality. Surviving mat shoots had marginally higher growth rates than surviving propped shoots during the early growing season after treatments were established. Natural emergent stem establishment was associated with warmer than average summer temperatures, but also warmer winter temperatures, lower winter wind speeds, and lower snowpack.

4. Synthesis. Our results suggest winter damage plays a more important role than does growing season temperature in maintaining the krummholz growth form. While warming may increase opportunities for emergent shoot establishment above krummholz mats, establishment of upright trees in the krummholz zone will also require climatic change that reduces wind and snow transport which cause winter damage.