Can Treeline Shift in Tropical Africa be Used As Proxy to Study Climate Change?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Miro Jacob1, Amaury Frankl1, Maaike De Ridder2, Etefa Guyassa3, Hans Beeckman2 and Jan Nyssen1, (1)Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, (2)The Royal Museum for Central Africa, Laboratory for Wood Biology and Xylarium, Brussels, Belgium, (3)Mekelle University, Land Resources Management and Environmental Protection, Mekelle, Ethiopia
The important ecosystem services of the vulnerable high altitude forests of the tropical African highlands are under increasing environmental and human pressure. The afro-alpine treeline forms an apparent and temperature-responsive vegetation boundary and is therefore potentially valuable as a proxy of climate change in the tropics. However, a review of the current literature about treeline dynamics in tropical Africa indicates that climate change did not cause rising treelines, due to high human pressure and growing human population densities. On average the treeline is depressed below its climatic limit by 400 ± 300 meter, but regional differences are high and there are still many uncertainties. A multidisciplinary study of treeline dynamics is conducted in the north Ethiopian highlands. The Erica arborea L. treeline is studied over a century, using satellite imagery, aerial photographs, repeat photography and dendroclimatology. Repeat photography is proven a unique tool for the identification of treeline dynamics on the long-term. Results in the Simen Mts. indicate a treeline rise of more than 100 meters since the early 20th century. In contrast, historical satellite and aerial imagery indicate that there has been strong deforestation since the last 30 years and a significant (p<0.05) but small rise of the treeline elevation of 11 ± 4 vertical meters in Lib Amba Mt. Dendroclimatological results indicate a weak but significant (p<0.05) correlation between tree ring width and interannual precipitation patterns. However, since treelines in the African tropical mountains are strongly disturbed by human and livestock pressure, they cannot directly be used as a proxy for climate change.