Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Malanson, George P.

First Committee Member

Armstrong, Marc

Second Committee Member

Bennett, David

Third Committee Member

Linderman, Marc

Fourth Committee Member

Zhang, You-Kuan


Alpine treeline ecotones (ATE) are the transition zones between contiguous subalpine forest and open alpine tundra. Because of their transitional natures formed by different ecosystems in high mountain areas, there are a variety of acute interactions between different species, between vegetations and environmental factors, and between ecological pattern and process. These interactions, or feedbacks, are often nonlinear in nature and make alpine treeline ecotones sensitive to environmental change, especially climate change. Feedbacks or nonlinear interactions between pattern and process create a variety of distinctive yet sometime surprising alpine treeline patterns. These nonlinear interactions between pattern and process and their resultant various patterns are defined as spatial complexity. In this study, the research framework of complexity theory was adopted. Dynamical simulations of alpine treeline ecotone is used as basic research method, and local nonlinear interactions, or more specifically, positive feedbacks are considered the key mechanism driving alpine treeline dynamics. A cellular simulation was created with tree/no-tree states that change as a function of probabilities of tree establishment and mortality which are functions of the neighborhood and an underlying gradient; the former changes in space and time endogenously; the latter can change in space and time exogenously. Three research projects were conducted for this dissertation that explore the endogenous and exogenous aspects of alpine treeline dynamics. First, the endogenous dynamics of alpine treeline ecotones was examined, which indicates that local positive feedbacks originated from interactions between trees can create fractal spatial dynamics in space and time. Second, the impacts of geomorphologic factors that impose an exogenous spatial structure on alpine treeline dynamics, was examined, which shows that there is a geomorphic limit to the endogenous fractal alpine treeline dynamics. Third, the impacts of climate change that imposes an exogenous temporal structure on alpine treeline dynamics was examined, which suggests that the self-organization nature of alpine treeline dynamics will not be significantly affected by external climate change and the use of alpine treeline ecotones as potential indicator of climate change is called into question. Results of this study suggest further research using complexity theory is needed to improve our understanding of alpine treeline dynamics and their interactions with exogenous environmental factors.


alpine, complexity, dynamics, ecotone, modeling, treeline


vii, 160 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 117-128).


Copyright 2010 Yu Zeng

Included in

Geography Commons