Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Malanson, George P

First Committee Member

Linderman, Marc A

Second Committee Member

Stewart, Kathleen

Third Committee Member

Bennett, David A

Fourth Committee Member

Bettis, Elmer A


The alpine treeline ecotone is primarily caused by climate at continental and regional scales, but at finer scales exhibits increasing complexity and linkages with abiotic factors. In order to better understand the dynamics and geographic properties of treeline, a three-pronged study was conducted. The study's first objective investigated what factors account for local treeline variation by comparing a climate-based predictive surface with actual treeline elevation. After finding that a mean growing season temperature of 10.27°C was the strongest predictor of treeline at continental scales, statistical analyses attempted to model the differences between predicted and actual treeline elevation based on local climatic and geomorphological controls. Site elevation and latitude were found to correlate most strongly. Roughness also exerted positive influences, as well as precipitation when coupled with certain terrain factors. The second objective explored the distribution of treeline carbon at site scales by analyzing field data gathered in August 2009 in Glacier National Park, Montana. This confirmed the expected relationship of upright trees containing the highest biomass density, tundra the lowest, and krummholz in the middle. A high degree of dead organic matter was discovered, which may have important implications for treeline as a carbon source or sink when considering treeline's slow decomposition rates, and how these will change under climate warming. An additional analysis investigated the potential for relative biomass gain with future treeline advance, based on site and regional differences in slope and environmental lapse rates. The third objective asked what the potential for change in treeline biomass is across the western United States is by using freeze-thaw days as a proposed indicator. This potential importance is based on existing knowledge of the facilitating relationships between solifluction, surface geomorphology, and seedling establishment and survival. Freeze-thaw days were found to be highly variable, but correlated most strongly with elevation, suggesting increased temperature variability at higher elevations. The concluding chapter synthesizes the findings and maps potential biomass gain and freeze-thaw days together to highlight treeline sites and regions with the greatest potential for advance in a warming climate.


alpine, biogeography, carbon, climate change, landscape ecology, treeline


2, xiv, 237 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 224-237).


Copyright 2012 Darren Robert Grafius

Included in

Geography Commons