Lithologic, structural, and geomorphic controls on ribbon forest patterns in a glaciated mountain environment

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So-called "ribbon forests" have been attributed to snowdrift patterns and fire history without reference to geomorphology [Vegetatio 19 (1969) 192]. This paper illustrates how site conditions of geomorphology and geology explain the origin of ribbon forests. In Glacier National Park, MT (USA), regional tectonic uplift associated with the Laramide Orogeny produced structural features that amplify lithologic differences. Pleistocene glaciation scoured deeply along the strike of bedding planes, highlighting this pattern and in some cases producing fine-scale parallel finger lakes between forested ribbon strips. Twelve ribbon forest sites on both sides of the Continental Divide were closely studied on stereoscopic aerial photographs, and several of these sites were examined in the field or from helicopter overflights. In all cases, geologic and geomorphic conditions explain the location and distribution of the ribbon forests. Change-detection of the distribution of trees versus nontree-covered surfaces in an area of ribbon forest on Flattop Mountain, a complex uplifted synclinal structure, was undertaken using panchromatic, low-altitude aerial photographs from 1966 to 1991. Areas changed from forest to meadow and from meadow to forest in roughly equal amounts in a generally random spatial pattern. No evidence was seen to suggest that the creation of one ribbon eventually created another downwind, as suggested by Billings. Aerial photograph interpretation, field examination and soils analyses of forest ribbons and adjacent unforested meadows clearly illustrated that trees occupy higher, parallel to subparallel, well-drained sites where the spatial pattern is in turn a distinct reflection of the spatial pattern of structure and stratigraphy. Meadows occupy topographically lower positions between ridges where erosion along bedding plane strike was concentrated. Topography sets conditions that allow tree growth in certain locations while precluding it in immediately adjacent areas. Ribbon forests there are thus a spatial manifestation of the interaction between structure, lithology, and topography.

Published Article/Book Citation

Geomorphology, 55:1-4 (2003) pp.203-217.

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