Is the Growth of Birch at the UPPER Timberline in the Himalayas Limited By Moisture or By Temperature?

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Eryuan Liang1, Binod Dawadi1,2, Neil Pederson3 and Dieter Eckstein4, (1)ITP Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, (2)Tribhuvan University, Central Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Kathmandu, Nepal, (3)Lamont -Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, NY, United States, (4)University of Hamburg, Centre of Wood Sciences, Hamburg, Germany
Birch (Betula) trees and forests are found across much of the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Yet, despite being an ecologically-significant genus, it is much less-well studied compared to common genera like Pinus, Picea, Juniperus, Quercus, and Fagus. In the Himalayas, Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) is a widespread, important broadleaf timberline species that survives in mountain rain shadows via access to water from snowmelt. Because precipitation in the Nepalese Himalayas decreases with increasing elevation, we hypothesized that the growth of birch at the upper timberlines between 3,900 and 4,150 m a.s.l. is primarily limited by moisture availability rather than by low temperature. To verify this assumption, a total of 292 increment cores were extracted from 211 birch trees at nine timberline sites. The synchronous occurrence of narrow rings and high inter-series correlations within and among sites evidenced a reliable cross-dating and a common climatic signal in the tree-ring widths variations. From March-May, all nine tree-ring width site chronologies showed a strongly positive response to total precipitation and a less strongly negative response to temperature. During the instrumental meteorological record (after 1960), years with a high percentage of missing rings coincided with pre-monsoon drought events. Periods of below-average growth are in phase with well-known drought events all over monsoon Asia, showing additional evidence that Himalayan birch growth at the upper timberlines is persistently limited by moisture availability. Our study describes the rare case of a drought-induced altitudinal timberline that is composed by a broadleaf tree species.