Identifying what determines the high elevation limits of tree growth is crucial for predicting how treelines may shift in response to climate change. Treeline formation is either explained by a low-temperature restriction of meristematic activity (sink limitation) or by the photosynthetic constraints (source limitation) on the trees at the treeline. Our study of tree-ring stable isotopes in two Tibetan elevational transects showed that treeline trees had higher iWUE than trees at lower elevations. The combination of tree-ring δ13C and δ18O data further showed that photosynthesis was higher for trees at the treeline than at lower elevations. These results suggest that carbon acquisition may not be the main determinant of the upper limit of trees; other processes, such as immature tissue growth, may be the main cause of treeline formation. The tree-ring isotope analysis (δ13C and δ18O) suggests that Tibetan treelines have the potential to benefit from ongoing climate warming, due to their ability to cope with co-occurring drought stress through enhanced water use efficiency.
Tree growth in high-elevation forests may increase as a result of increasing temperatures and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere (Ca). However, the pattern and the physiological mechanism on how these two factors interact to affect tree growth are still poorly understood. Here, we analyzed the temporal changes in radial growth and tree-ring δ13C for Picea and Abies trees growing in both treeline and lower-elevation forests on the Tibetan Plateau. We found that the tree growth at the treeline has significantly accelerated during the past several decades but has remained largely stable or slightly declined at lower elevations. Further results based on tree-ring δ13C suggest that intrinsic water-use efficiency (iWUE) was generally higher at the treeline than in lower-elevation forests, although increasing trends of iWUE existed for all sites. This study demonstrated that the synergetic effects of elevated Ca and increasing temperatures have increased tree growth at the treeline but may not lead to enhanced tree growth in lower-elevation forests due to drought stress. These results demonstrate the elevational dependence of tree growth responses to climatic changes in high-elevation forests from a physiologically meaningful perspective.
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