A common soil temperature threshold for the upper limit of alpine grasslands in European mountains
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Alpine life zoneGLORIAGrowing seasonPlant-Climate interactionsSoil temperatureVascular plants
Bürli, S., Theurillat, JP., Winkler, M. et al. A common soil temperature threshold for the upper limit of alpine grasslands in European mountains. Alp Botany (2021). [https://doi.org/10.1007/s00035-021-00250-1]
SponsorshipUniversite de Lausanne; 5th RTD Framework Programme of the European Union; Foundation Dr. Joachim de Giacomi; Fondation Marietan; MAVA Foundation; Norwegian Environment Agency; Scottish Natural Heritage; Societe academique de Geneve; Swiss Federal Office of Education and Science; Swiss Federal Office for the Environment; Tiroler Wissenschaftsfonds; Tuscan-Emilian Apennines National Park; Wissenschaftsforderung der Sudtiroler Landesregierung; Ordesa & Monte Perdido National Park; Research Commission of the Swiss National Park; Vedecka grantova agentura MSVVaS SR a SAV (VEGA) 2/0132/18; Italian project of strategic interest NextData; Frignano Regional Park (Modena); UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; Departement de la culture et des sports du Valais; Gobierno de Aragon
While climatic research about treeline has a long history, the climatic conditions corresponding to the upper limit of closed alpine grasslands remain poorly understood. Here, we propose a climatic definition for this limit, the 'grassline', in analogy to the treeline, which is based on the growing season length and the soil temperature. Eighty-seven mountain summits across ten European mountain ranges, covering three biomes (boreal, temperate, Mediterranean), were inventoried as part of the GLORIA project. Vascular plant cover was estimated visually in 326 plots of 1 x 1 m. Soil temperatures were measured in situ for 2-7 years, from which the length of the growing season and mean temperature were derived. The climatic conditions corresponding to 40% plant cover were defined as the thresholds for alpine grassland. Closed vegetation was present in locations with a mean growing season soil temperature warmer than 4.9 degrees C, or a minimal growing season length of 85 days, with the growing season defined as encompassing days with daily mean >= 1 degrees C. Hence, the upper limit of closed grasslands was associated with a mean soil temperature close to that previously observed at the treeline, and in accordance with physiological thresholds to growth in vascular plants. In contrast to trees, whose canopy temperature is coupled with air temperature, small-stature alpine plants benefit from the soil warmed by solar radiation and consequently, they can grow at higher elevations. Since substrate stability is necessary for grasslands to occur at their climatic limit, the grassline rarely appears as a distinct linear feature.