Journal of Mountain Science

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 289–297 | Cite as

Contribution of mass elevation effect to the altitudinal distribution of global treelines

  • Fang Zhao
  • Bai-ping ZhangEmail author
  • Shuo Zhang
  • Wen-wen Qi
  • Wen-hui He
  • Jing Wang
  • Yong-hui Yao


Alpine treeline, as a prominent ecological boundary between forested mountain slopes and alpine meadow/shrub, is highly complex in altitudinal distribution and sensitive to warming climate. Great efforts have been made to explore their distribution patterns and ecological mechanisms that determine these patterns for more than 100 years, and quite a number of geographical and ecophysiological models have been developed to correlate treeline altitude with latitude or a latitude related temperature. However, on a global scale, all of these models have great difficulties to accurately predict treeline elevation due to the extreme diversity of treeline site conditions. One of the major reasons is that “mass elevation effect” (MEE) has not been quantified globally and related with global treeline elevations although it has been observed and its effect on treeline elevations in the Eurasian continent and Northern Hemisphere recognized. In this study, we collected and compiled a total of 594 treeline sites all over the world from literatures, and explored how MEE affects global treeline elevation by developing a ternary linear regression model with intra-mountain base elevation (IMBE, as a proxy of MEE), latitude and continentality as independent variables. The results indicated that IMBE, latitude and continentality together could explain 92% of global treeline elevation variability, and that IMBE contributes the most (52.2%), latitude the second (40%) and continentality the least (7.8%) to the altitudinal distribution of global treelines. In the Northern Hemisphere, the three factors’ contributions amount to 50.4%, 45.9% and 3.7% respectively; in the south hemisphere, their contributions are 38.3%, 53%, and 8.7%, respectively. This indicates that MEE, virtually the heating effect of macro-landforms, is actually the most significant factor for the altitudinal distribution of treelines across the globe, and that latitude is relatively more significant for treeline elevation in the Southern Hemisphere probably due to fewer macro-landforms there.


Alpine treeline Intra-mountain base elevation Multiple regression analysis Geographical factor Continentality Contribution rate 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Barry RG (2008) Mountain Weather and Climate. Cambridge University Press, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  2. Bussmann RW (2006) Vegetation zonation and nomenclature of African Mountains — An overview. Lyonia 11(1): 41–66.Google Scholar
  3. Casalegno S, Amatulli G, Camia A, et al. (2010) Vulnerability of Pinus cembra L. in the Alps and the Carpathian mountains under present and future climates. Forest Ecology and Management 259: 750–761. DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2009.10.001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cogbill CV, White PS (1991) The latitude-elevation relationship for spruce-fir forest and treeline along the Appalachian mountain chain. Vegetatio 94: 153–175. DOI: 10.1007/BF00032629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cronk QCB (1997) Islands: stability, diversity, conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation 6: 477–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Daubenmire R (1954) Alpine timberlines in the Americas and their interpretation. Butler University Botanical Studies 11: 119–135.Google Scholar
  7. Ellenberg H (1988) Vegetation ecology of Central Europe. Cambridge University Press, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  8. Fang JY (1995) Three-dimension distribution of forest zones in East Asia. Acta Geographica Sinica 50(2): 160–167. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  9. Fang JY, Oshawa M, Kira T (1996) Vertical vegetation zones along 30′N latitude in humid East Asia. Vegetatio 126: 135–149. DOI: 10.1007/BF00045600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Flenley J (2007) Ultraviolet insolation and the tropical rainforest: altitudinal variations, Quaternary and recent change, extinctions, and biodiversity. In: Tropical Rainforest Responses to Climatic Change. Praxis, Chichester, UK.Google Scholar
  11. Gorczynski L (1922) The calculation of the degree of continentality. Monthly Weather Review 50(7): 369–370. DOI: 10.1175/1520-0493(1922)50〈370b:TCOTDO〉2.0.CO;2CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Grace J (1977) Plant Response to Wind. Academic Press, London, UK.Google Scholar
  13. Grubb JP (1971) Interpretation of Massenerhebung Effect on Tropical Mountains. Nature 1971(229): 44–45. DOI: 10.1038/229044a0CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hall JB (1984) Juniperus excelsa in Africa: A Biogeographical Study of an Afromontane Tree. Journal of Biogeography 11(1): 47–61. DOI: 10.2307/2844775CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Han F, Zhang BP, Yao YH, et al. (2011) Mass elevation effect and its contribution to the altitude of snowline in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 43(2): 207–212. DOI: 10.1657/1938-4246-43.2.207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hemp A (2006) Continuum or zonation? Altitudinal gradients in the forest vegetation of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Plant Ecology 184(1): 27–42. DOI: 10.1007/s11258-005-9049-4CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hijmans RJ, Cameron SE, Parra JL, et al. (2005) Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. International Journal Of Climatology 25: 1965–1978. DOI: 10.1002/joc.1276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Holdridge LR (1947) Determination of world plant formations from simple climatic data. Science 105(2727): 367–368. DOI: 10.1126/science.105.2727.367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Holdridge LR (1967) Life zone ecology, Rev. edn. Tropical Science Center, San Jose, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  20. Holtmeier FK (2009) Mountain Timberlines Ecology, Patchiness, and Dynamics, 2nd edition. Springer Verlag, New York, USA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Holtmeier FK, Broll G (2005) Sensitivity and response of Northern Hemisphere altitudinal and polar treelines to environmental change at landscape and local scales. Global Ecology and Biogeography 14(5): 395–410. DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-822x.2005.00168.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hou X (1982) Vegetational geography and chemical components of dominant plants in China. Science Press, Beijing, China. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  23. Jobbagy EG, Jackson RB (2000) Global controls of forest line elevation in the northern and Southern Hemispheres. Global Ecology and Biogeography 9(3): 253–268. DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2699.2000.00162.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Körner C (1998) A re-assessment of high elevation treeline positions and their explanation. Oecologia 115(4): 445–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Körner C, Paulsen J (2004) A world-wide study of high altitude treeline temperatures. Journal of Biogeography 31(5): 713–732. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2003.01043.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Körner C, Riedl S (2012) Alpine Treelines: Functional Ecology of the Global High Elevation Tree Limits. Springer, Basel, Switzerland. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-0348-0396-0CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kessler M, Kluge J, Hemp A, et al. (2011) A global comparative analysis of elevational species richness patterns of ferns. Global Ecology and Biogeography 20: 868–880. DOI: j.1466-8238.2011.00653.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kira T (1945) A new classification of climate in eastern asia as the basis for agricultural geography. Horticultural institute, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.Google Scholar
  29. Kullman L (2007) Tree line population monitoring of Pinus sylvestris in the Swedish Scandes, 1973–2005: implications for tree line theory and climate change ecology. Journal of Ecology 95: 41–52. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2006.01190.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leakey RJG, Proctor J (1987) Invertebrates in the litter and soil at a range of altitudes on Gunung Silam, a small ultrabasic mountain in Sabah. Journal of Tropical Ecology 3: 119–129. DOI: 10.1017/S026646740000184XCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Leonelli G, Pelfini M, Morra di Cella U (2009) Detecting climatic treelines in the Italian Alps: the influence of geomorphological factors and human impacts. Physical Geography 30(4): 338–352. DOI: 10.2747/0272-3646.30.4.338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Leuschner C (1996) Timberline and alpine vegetation on the tropical and warm-temperate oceanic islands of the world: Elevation, structure and floristics. Vegetatio 123(2): 193–206. DOI: 10.1007/BF00118271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Liu H (1981) The vertical zonation of mountain vegetation in China. Acta Geographica Sinica 36: 257–279. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  34. Malyshev L (1993) Levels of the upper forest boundary in Northern Asia. Vegetatio 109(2): 175–186. DOI: 10.1007/BF00044749CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Miehe G, Miehe S, Vogel J, et al. (2007) Highest treeline in the Northern Hemisphere found in southern Tibet. Mountain Research and Development 27(2): 169–173. DOI: 10.1659/mrd.0792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ohsawa M (1990) An interpretation of latitudinal patterns of forest limits in South and East Asian mountains. Journal of Ecology 78(2): 326–339. DOI: 10.2307/2261115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Price LW (1978) Mountains of the pacific northwest, U.S.A.: a study in contrasts. Arctic and Alpine Research 10(2): 465–478. DOI: 10.2307/1550781CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rössler O, Bräuning A, Löffler J (2008) Dynamics and driving forces of treeline fluctuation and regeneration in central Norway during the past decades. Erdkunde 62: 117–128. DOI: 10.3112/erdkunde.2008.02.02CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rao GV, Erdogan S (1989) The atmospheric heat source over the Bolivian plateau for a mean January. Boundary-layer Meteorology 46(1): 13–33. DOI: 10.1007/BF00118444CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Schickhoff U (2005) The upper timberline in the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakorum: a review of geographical and ecological aspects. In: mountain ecosystems. Springer Berlin/Heidelberg, German. DOI: 10.1007/b138976Google Scholar
  41. Szabo ND, Algar AC, Kerr JT (2009) Reconciling topographic and climatic effects on widespread and range-restricted species richness. Global Ecology and Biogeography 18: 735–744. DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2009.00479.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Troll C (1973) The upper timberlines in different climatic zones. Arctic and Alpine Research 5(3): A3–A18.Google Scholar
  43. Vansteenis GJ (1961) An attempt towards an explanation of the effect of mountain mass elevation. Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Science of the Netherlands 64: 435–442.Google Scholar
  44. Wardle P (1974) Alpine timberlines. In: Arctic and Alpine Environments. Methuen, London, UK.Google Scholar
  45. Whitmore TC (1984) A vegetation map of Malesia at the scale of 1:5 million. Journal of Biogeography 11: 461–471. DOI: 10.2307/2844792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Yao Y, Zhang BP (2014) The mass elevation effect of the Tibetan Plateau and its implications for Alpine treelines. International Journal of Climatology (accepted). DOI: 10.1002/joc.4123Google Scholar
  47. Yeh TC, Chang CC (1974) Preliminary experimental simulation on heating effect of Tibetan Plateau on general circulation over eastern Asia in summer. Scientia Sinica 17(3): 397–420.Google Scholar
  48. Zhang S, Yao YH, Pang Y, et al. (2012) Mountain basal elevation extraction in the Taiwan island. Journal of Geo-infomation Science 14: 562–568. (In Chinese)Google Scholar
  49. Zhang, X (1978) The plateau zonality of vegetation in Xizang. Acta Botanica Sinica 6(2): 140–149. (In chinese)Google Scholar
  50. Zhao F, Zhang BP, Pang Y, et al. (2014) A study of the contribution of mass elevation effect to the altitudinal distribution of timberline in the Northern Hemisphere. Journal of Geographical Sciences 24(2): 226–236. DOI: 10.1007/s11442-014-1084-4CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Science Press, Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, CAS and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fang Zhao
    • 1
    • 2
  • Bai-ping Zhang
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Shuo Zhang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Wen-wen Qi
    • 1
    • 2
  • Wen-hui He
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jing Wang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Yong-hui Yao
    • 1
  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Resource and Environment Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources ResearchChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.University of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Jiangsu Center for Collaborative Innovation in Geographical Information Resource Development and ApplicationNanjingChina

Personalised recommendations