Across native the east Fork Toklat River, the intrusion of spruce woodlands upslope into alpine tundra often tends to accelerate on warmth south-facing slopes (at left) wherein white spruce (Picea glauca) dominate, however it also occurs on cool north-facing slopes (at right) overcame by black spruce (Picea mariana).

Photo by Kirk Stueve

Change is a recurring design template for researchers monitoring and also studying Alaska’s expansive landscapes. Warmer temperatures throughout internal Alaska end the last number of decades—average yearly temperature boost of 2o come 4o C (4o come 7o F)—have result in raised glacial melt, permafrost degradation, and also the development of woody vegetation. If this warming tendency continues, the will adjust Alaska’s ecosystems and also drastically transform the physics appearance of Denali’s landscapes for decades.

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Over five years of vegetation readjust are captured in the comparison of a 1953 aerial photo (left) and 2005 satellite imagery (middle). Arrows indicate the maximum key of trees in every year. One abiotic variable, summer sun exposure, is modeled because that the same treeline area (right panel).

Alpine treeline and also climate change

Alpine treeline is the transitional eco-friendly zone between spruce woodlands at lower elevations and also alpine tundra at greater elevations. Since cold temperatures border tree establishment at high elevations, the alpine treeline ar is hypothesized come be specifically sensitive come climatic warming. Treeline in Denali is discovered at an elevation of about 850 m (2790 feet) on cool north-facing slopes (mostly slowgrowing black spruce), and also up to around 1100 m (3600 feet) on warmth south-facing slopes (mostly white spruce).

Denali’s biggest biodiversity is discovered in high treeless tundra, so an increase in tree abundance in previously tundra habitats may decrease tree diversity and indirectly decrease animal diversity. Another expected an effect of tree invasion right into tundra is a change in the habits and also movements of caribou and also grizzlies, two varieties that rely generally on tundra. If tundra habitat disappears native the Denali park road corridor, the may adjust the experience of tourist wanting to check out these 2 species.

Climate adjust experts and plant ecologists suppose treeline to continue advancing upslope in many areas, but the precise patterns of brand-new tree facility are daunting for researchers to explain and predict due to the fact that of facility influences from regional site conditions and local climate variability.

Kirk Stueve, then a Ph.D. Candidate indigenous Texas A&M university (now with the U.S. Woodland Service), and also Rachel Isaacs, then a M.S. Student likewise from Texas A&M university (now a Ph.D. Candidate in ~ the Pennsylvania State University), selected a treeline website in Denali come (1) document the spatial trends of it was observed treeline changes through fieldverified aerial and also satellite image analysis and (2) to determine the relative impacts of local site problems on these changes. The website is around 8.5 kilometres (5.3 miles) phibìc of the park road along the east Fork Toklat River, south east of the Wyoming Hills.

Kirk Stueve bring away an increment main point from a white spruce, to determine when this tree established.

Photo through Rachel Isaacs

Patterns the treeline change

Prior to getting here at Denali, Stueve and Isaacs used geographical Information equipment to to compare imagery the the website from 1953 (aerial photo) and 2005 (IKONOS satellite image). Lock identified locations that experienced plentiful tree establishment in between 1953 and also 2005 for fieldwork.

To determine days of tree establishment and verify alters in the imagery, they extracted increment cores indigenous 40 trees and also cross part from 10 saplings (i.e. To counting yearly tree growth rings).

The primary alters observed to be (1) infilling the spruce near established trees and also (2) patchy upslope advance of spruce right into the alpine tundra. In some cases, newly created trees “advanced” end 150 meters (490 feet) upslope into tundra (compare red arrows).

The field study evidenced that the bulk of this trees became established in a couple of discrete time periods after 1953, however some additionally became created prior to that year and also were not discernible top top the 1953 photo. These alters are continual with various other findings somewhere else in Denali end the last 30 years.

Proximity to other trees to be the ideal indicator that tree establishment, much more important than any kind of other physics site factor examined.

The affect of local site conditions

Theoretically, treeline should advance upslope uniformly in the visibility of warmer temperatures, however the cumulative influence of regional site conditions—both physical (abiotic) and biological (biotic) might prevent this from arising in a linear fashion—or possibly also hinder tree growth.

Stueve and also Isaacs offered a digital key model, (digital depiction of the terrain) and also data for prevailing winds, to map local site problems in relationship to the fads of tree establishment observed between 1953 and also 2005 (e.g., check out map the summer sun exposure above). They used statistical methods to recognize which site conditions exerted the most regulate over fads of tree establishment.

Although the abiotic factors of elevation, winter sun exposure, proximity to streams, steep angle, snowpack, humidity availability, and summer sun exposure were prominent (descending stimulate of importance), proximity to existing tree (biotic factor) was the most necessary variable affecting trends of tree establishment. Due to the fact that treeline in this component of Denali is reasonably undisturbed, these results challenge the ecological presumption that the vegetation (trees) close to treeline is in equilibrium or balance with its abiotic environment.

These findings can mean that: (1) treeline reacts too slowly to climate readjust and is never in equilibrium with the physics environment, (2) climatic warming in interior Alaska over the last several decades has to be so pronounced that tree establishment lags behind newly suitable conditions close to the current treeline, or (3) existing tree modify your surroundings, making conditions in the adjacent tundra suitable for tree seedlings, and also upslope advance and/or lateral infilling continues until such time as a major disturbance (e.g. Fire or serious climatic cooling event) sets treeline earlier to a reduced elevation.

Regardless of i beg your pardon explanation is true, treeline will most likely keep progressing upslope and also experience infilling, even if warming trends space tempered in inner Alaska. However, relying on the balance of moisture (increased evapotranspiration native plants) and temperature at localized sites, some areas could convert to grassland.

Management implications

Changes in Denali’s landscape will likely continue to occur and also be most conspicuous at treeline. The approach of evaluating aerial photography and also satellite imagery is reliable at capturing readjust at a broad spatial scale. Not only is that a beneficial tool in monitoring and explaining alters that have actually occurred, it may be key to predicting future readjust and come considering if, or how, such adjust could it is in mitigated.

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This research study was partly funded v a find Denali research study Fellowship indigenous the Denali Education center through the Murie Science and also Learning center to K. Stueve.