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Forests are expected to expand into alpine areas because of climate warming, causing land-cover change and fragmentation of alpine habitats. However, this expansion will only occur if the present upper treeline is limited by low-growing season temperatures that reduce plant growth. This temperature limitation has not been quantified at a landscape scale. Here, we show that temperature alone cannot realistically explain high-elevation tree cover over a >100-km(2) area in the Canadian Rockies and that geologic/geomorphic processes are fundamental to understanding the heterogeneous landscape distribution of trees. Furthermore, upslope tree advance in a warmer scenario will be severely limited by availability of sites with adequate geomorphic/topographic characteristics. Our results imply that landscape-to-regional scale projections of warming-induced, high-elevation forest advance into alpine areas should not be based solely on temperature-sensitive, site-specific upper-treeline studies but also on geomorphic processes that control tree occurrence at long (centuries/millennia) timescales.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





8117 - 8122


biogeoscience, climate change, forest ecology, niche modeling, remote sensing, Canada, Climate, Climate Change, Ecology, Ecosystem, Geography, Geology, Models, Theoretical, Seasons, Temperature, Trees