Climate Change and Treeline Dynamics in the Himalaya

  • Udo SchickhoffEmail author
  • Maria Bobrowski
  • Jürgen Böhner
  • Birgit Bürzle
  • Ram Prasad Chaudhary
  • Lars Gerlitz
  • Jelena Lange
  • Michael Müller
  • Thomas Scholten
  • Niels Schwab


Treelines are sensitive to changing climatic conditions, in particular to temperature increases, and the majority of global alpine treelines has shown a response to recent climate change. High temperature trends in the Himalaya suggest a treeline advance to higher elevations; it is largely unknown, however, how broader-scale climate inputs interact with local-scale factors and processes to govern treeline response patterns. This paper reviews and synthesizes the current state of knowledge regarding sensitivity and response of Himalayan treelines to climate warming, based on extensive field observations, published results in the widely scattered literature and novel data from ongoing research of the present authors.

Palaeoecological studies indicate that the position of Himalayan treeline ecotones has been sensitive to Holocene climate change. After the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, treelines advanced in elevation to a position several hundred metres higher than today under warm-humid conditions and reached uppermost limits in the early Holocene. Decreasing temperatures below early and mid-Holocene levels induced a downward shift of treelines after c. 5.0 kyr BP. The decline of subalpine forests and treeline elevation in the more recent millennia was coincident with weakening monsoonal influence and increasing anthropogenic interferences.

To assess current treeline dynamics, treeline type, treeline form, seed-based regeneration and growth patterns are evaluated as sensitivity indicators. Anthropogenic treelines are predominant in the Himalaya; upslope movement of these treelines is related to the effects of land-use change. Near-natural treelines, rare nowadays, are usually developed as krummholz treelines which are relatively unresponsive. Strong competition within the krummholz belt and dense dwarf scrub heaths further upslope largely prevents the upward migration of tree species and retards treeline advance to higher elevation. However, intense recruitment of treeline trees within the treeline ecotone and beyond indicates beneficial preconditions for future treeline ascent. Growth patterns of treeline trees are particularly sensitive to higher winter and pre-monsoon temperatures, suggesting that moisture supply in the pre-monsoon season might be an effective control of future treeline dynamics. Modelled upslope range expansions of treeline trees point to potentially favourable bioclimatic conditions for an upward shift of treelines.


Holocene Monsoon Niche modelling Recruitment Seedling Soil moisture Soil temperature Tree radial growth Treeline advance Treeline form Treeline type 



We would like to thank several local people in Beding and Langtang who provided lodging and support in field data collection. Our thanks also go to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG SCHI 436/14-1, SCHO 739/14-1, BO 1333/4-1), the DAAD, the University of Hamburg and several foundations for financial support.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Udo Schickhoff
    • 1
    Email author
  • Maria Bobrowski
    • 1
  • Jürgen Böhner
    • 1
  • Birgit Bürzle
    • 1
  • Ram Prasad Chaudhary
    • 2
  • Lars Gerlitz
    • 3
  • Jelena Lange
    • 4
  • Michael Müller
    • 5
  • Thomas Scholten
    • 5
  • Niels Schwab
    • 1
  1. 1.CEN Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, Institute of GeographyUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany
  2. 2.RECAST Research Centre for Applied Science and TechnologyTribhuvan UniversityKathmanduNepal
  3. 3.Section HydrologyGFZ German Research Centre for GeosciencesPotsdamGermany
  4. 4.Institute of Botany and Landscape EcologyUniversity of GreifswaldGreifswaldGermany
  5. 5.Department of Geosciences, Chair of Soil Science and GeomorphologyUniversity of TübingenTübingenGermany

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