, Volume 135, Issue 1, pp 10–21 | Cite as

The carbon charging of pines at the climatic treeline: a global comparison

  • Günter HochEmail author
  • Christian Körner


The carbon charging of pines across the treeline ecotone of three different climatic zones (Mexico 19°N Pinus hartwegii, Swiss Alps 46°N P. cembra and northern Sweden 68°N P. sylvestris) was analyzed, to test whether a low-temperature-driven carbon shortage can explain high-elevation tree limits, and whether the length of the growing season affects the trees' carbon balance. We quantified the concentrations of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and lipids (acylglycerols) in all tree organs at three dates during the growing seasons across elevational transects from the upper end of the closed, tall forest (timberline) to the uppermost location where groups of trees ≥3 m in height occur (treeline). Mean ground temperatures during the growing season at the treelines were similar (6.1±0.7°C) irrespective of latitude. Across the individual transects, the concentrations of NSC and lipids increased with elevation in all organs. By the end of the growing season, all three species had very similar total mobile carbon (TMC) concentrations at the treeline (ca. 6% TMC in the aboveground dry biomass), suggesting no influence of the length of the growing season on tree carbon charging. At a temperate lowland reference site P. sylvestris reached only ca. 4% TMC in the aboveground dry biomass, with the 2% difference largely explained by higher lipid concentrations of treeline pines. We conclude that carbon availability is unlikely to be the cause of the altitudinal tree limit. It seems rather that low temperatures directly affect sink activity at the treeline, with surplus carbon stored in osmotically inactive compounds.


Non-structural carbohydrates Lipids Conifers High elevation Growth limitation 



This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, project no. 31–55173.98. We thank the following persons and institutions for their support during the field campaign: R. Dirzo, R.I. Martinez and H. Vibrans (Mexico), M.H. Li and J. Paulsen (Basel) and N.Å. Andersson and the Abisko Research Station of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (Abisko). We are grateful to M. Popp and A. Richter (Vienna) for providing analytical advice and GC-access, O. Bignucolo for his help with part of the NSC-analyses, R. Bänninger, B. Bildstein, R. Riedl and G. Schaer for their assistance with the sample preparation and T. Fabro and T. Zumbrunn for retrieving our data loggers in Sweden.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of BotanyUniversity of Basel BaselSwitzerland

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