Mounting research on alpine treeline advance suggests that global and regional temperatures do not completely explain changes in treeline elevation and distribution. Rather, micrometeorological feedbacks may play an important role in treeline advance by increasing local temperatures. On Pikes Peak, the comparison of a transition zone microclimate at treeline to an adjacent rockslide microclimate at the same elevation showed that the transition zone microclimate heats more quickly and to a higher maximum temperature than the rockslide. Observed differential heating is particularly prevalent in the near-surface soil temperature, an important location for seedling establishment and growth. During the June observation period, daytime temperature maximums in the transition zone soil were 7C warmer on average than in the rockslide. Local warming at the treeline’s leading edge suggests that the presence of trees increases soil heat flux through a variety of mechanisms. Canopy warming, varying soil moisture, and sheltering are each considered independently as possible causes of differential heating. First, I investigate the possibility that heat captured in the canopy warms the transition zone microclimate. However, this theory is unsupported by data showing daytime canopy transpiration and cooling, and infrared photos revealing that the canopy is significantly cooler than the rockslide during the day. Second, I explore whether higher soil moisture in the transition zone is responsible for differential heating via increased conduction. However, soil moistures are actually lower in the treeline microclimate, suggesting that low soil moisture may be a characteristic of warming rather than its cause. Third, I look at the idea that trees shelter the microclimate from wind and hence reduce heat loss. While sheltering effects show some relationship with differential heating, there is no consistent correlation between high wind and differential heating. While this analysis does not offer a clear cause of differential warming, a better understanding of the treeline system is gained, and suggestions are made for how and where to look for warming feedbacks in the future. Thus, while results are inconclusive, warming feedbacks at treeline that increase soil temperatures during the critical growing season should be further considered as factors in treeline advance.
The tree line is a climatic boundary, however its ability to respond to changing climate seems to be constrained by the spatial distribution of trees at the leading edge; compared to abrupt or krummholz tree lines, diffuse tree lines are moving upslope much more readily in response to recent anthropogenic warming. Here we report on the micrometeorological processes that result from the diffuse leading edge of a moving tree line on Pikes Peak, Colorado, USA, and on the impacts these processes have on tree temperatures. We focus on the layering and movement of air in the lower 10m of the atmosphere including the height of the displacement of the zero velocity plane. Our experimental design consisted of 300m upslope transects through the tree line into the alpine tundra where we measured: (1) height of the zero plane displacement using handheld anemometers, (2) temperature of 10cm tall seedlings, 3-5m tall trees, and tundra grasses using an IR camera, (3) temperature and relative humidity at 2.5cm an 2m using Kestrel hand held weather stations, (4) the vertical atmospheric profiles using 10m towers equipped with 8 anemometers at 5 different elevations, (5) vertical movement of air using a bubble-blowing machine. Our results show that (1) the zero plane height decreased exponentially with increasing elevation (R2=0.432, N=57, p<0.0005) from approximately 25cm within the tree line to 2.5cm in the tundra above. The spatial variability of the zero plane height also decreased with elevation. (2) The temperature of small seedlings was (3) closely coupled to the ground vegetation (paired t-test t= 2.213, df=10, p=0.051),but seedlings were on average 3.88°C warmer than trees (paired t-test t= 5.808, df=10, p<0.0005), and trees were 6.1°C colder that the tundra (paired t-test t= 6.617, df=10, p<0.0005). (3) Compared to the air at 2m, the air layer at 2cm had higher temperature (+2.5°C, paired t-test t= 7.205, df=19, p<0.0005), and higher relative humidity higher (+29%, paired t-test t= 9.657, df=19, p<0.0005). (4) The vertical wind profile had a simple and smooth slow down to the zero plane at 2.5cm in the alpine tundra. However the profile was complex in all locations where trees were present: It showed an initial slow down to a very low speed at 3-4m, increase in velocity at 2m, and final slow down to the zero plane at 25cm. Qualitative and quantitative analysis of bubble movement (5) showed that the upper boundary layer was turbulent.