Is the growth of birch at the upper timberline in the Himalayas limited by moisture or by temperature?
Birch (Betula) trees and forests are found across much of the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Yet, despite being an ecologically significant genus, it is not well studied compared to other genera like Pinus, Picea, Larix, Juniperus, Quercus, or Fagus. In the Himalayas, Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) is a widespread broadleaf timberline species that survives in mountain rain shadows via access to water from snowmelt. Because precipitation in the Nepalese Himalayas decreases with increasing elevation, we hypothesized that the growth of birch at the upper timberlines between 3900 and 4150 m above sea level is primarily limited by moisture availability rather than by low temperature. To examine this assumption, a total of 292 increment cores from 211 birch trees at nine timberline sites were taken for dendroecological analysis. The synchronous occurrence of narrow rings and the high interseries correlations within and among sites evidenced a reliable cross-dating and a common climatic signal in the tree-ring width variations. From March to May, all nine tree-ring-width site chronologies showed a strong positive response to total precipitation and a less-strong negative response to temperature. During the instrumental meteorological record (from 1960 to the present), years with a high percentage of locally missing rings coincided with dry and warm pre-monsoon seasons. Moreover, periods of below-average growth are in phase with well-known drought events all over monsoon Asia, showing additional evidence that Himalayan birch growth at the upper timberlines is persistently limited by moisture availability. Our study describes the rare case of a drought-induced alpine timberline that is comprised of a broadleaf tree species.
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