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An increase in the upper tree-limit of silver fir (Abies alba Mill.) in the Alps since the mid-20th century: A land-use change phenomenon

Abstract : Global environmental changes observed during recent decades are likely to have had an impact on the distribution of species. Currently, silver fir (Abies alba) is becoming established in the subalpine forests of the west central Alps at elevations higher than 2000 ma.s.l.; prior to the 1970s its upper altitudinal limit was 2000 m. Several hypotheses could explain this recent expansion of the upper tree-limit. Silver fir regeneration could be linked (1) to land-use changes or (2) to current climatic warming. Using dendrochronology, the age structure of 31 forest plots containing at least one silver fir was examined in order to elucidate the population dynamics of subalpine communities. This allowed us to decipher the timing of fir regeneration in relation to the mean age of the stands examined and of the other tree-canopy species present. The majority of the firs germinated sporadically since 1950, before the regional temperature increase. The pattern of fir recruitment did not appear to relate to altitude, but followed a pattern characteristic of secondary succession. The age structures identified showed an exponential increase in tree-density during the 20th century; the stands were first dominated by Larix decidua during the 18th and 19th centuries, and then by Pinus cembra during the 20th century. In most stands, fir regeneration occurred after Larix and before P. cembra dominated, following a similar pattern to Picea abies regeneration. The number of local inhabitants and temperature both exhibited a negative relationship with fir tree recruitment, thus supporting the land-use change hypothesis. There has been a significant upward shift of the altitudinal range of fir, amounting to an increase of about 300 m since 1950. This followed the abandonment of low-productivity land. This trend is likely to continue during the 21st century, because of new agricultural and forestry practices which involve limited intervention in low-productivity areas and may be because of the effects of global warming.
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Sandrine Chauchard, Fabien Beilhe, Nicole Denis, Christopher Carcaillet. An increase in the upper tree-limit of silver fir (Abies alba Mill.) in the Alps since the mid-20th century: A land-use change phenomenon. Forest Ecology and Management, Elsevier, 2010, 259 (8), pp.1406-1415. ⟨10.1016/j.foreco.2010.01.009⟩. ⟨hal-02664753⟩

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