Warming induced growth decline of Himalayan birch at its lower range edge in a semi-arid region of Trans-Himalaya, central Nepal
Changes in the position of altitudinal treelines and timberlines are considered useful indicators of climatic changes on tree growth and forest dynamics. We sought to determine if recent warming is driving contrasting growth responses of Himalayan birch, at moist treeline (Lete Lekh) and semi-arid timberline (Chimang Lekh) sites in the Trans-Himalayan zone of central Nepal. We used dendrochronological techniques to measure tree ring width (TRW) and basal area increment (BAI) of birch trees from climatically contrasting but nearby sites. The TRW series were correlated with climate records from nearby meteorological stations, and BAI was compared between populations to explore growth trends over recent decades. We found contrasting precipitation trends between nearby sites such that the wet site (Lete) is getting warmer and wetter, and the dry site (Chimang) is getting warmer and drier in recent decades. The radial growth of birch in both moist and semi-arid sites are positively correlated to spring (March–May) rainfall, and negatively correlated to mean and maximum temperature for the same period. The growth climate analysis indicated that moisture availability in early growing season is crucial for birch growth at these locations. The BAI of birch is declining more rapidly at the dry timberline than at the moist treelines in the recent decades, indicating that climatic warming might negatively impact birch radial growth where warming interacts with increasing spring drought in the region. Our work highlights contrasting growth response of birch to climate change at moist and semi-arid forests indicating that local climatic variation must be accounted for when assessing and forecasting regional patterns of tree growth in topographically complex regions like Trans-Himalaya, in order to make accurate predictions of vegetation responses to climate change.