McNown, Robert W., and Patrick F. Sullivan. 2013. Low photosynthesis of treeline white spruce is associated with limited soil nitrogen availability in the Western Brooks Range, Alaska. Functional Ecology 27(3): 672–683. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12082
The prevailing hypothesis states that treeline positions are defined by the direct effects of cold temperatures on cell division and tree growth. Meanwhile, photosynthesis is thought to be relatively unrestricted in treeline trees. Support for this hypothesis comes from the global correlation between temperature and treeline position, the observation that many treelines have advanced in response to recent warming and the frequent use of increment cores from treeline trees to reconstruct past climates. However, studies of the physiology of trees at the Arctic treeline are rare, and this hypothesis remains largely untested. To improve our understanding of the relationships between temperature and performance of white spruce near the Arctic treeline, we made measurements of needle gas exchange, needle nutrition and soil nutrient availability over 2 years in three contrasting habitats: riverside terrace, hillslope forest and treeline. The sites had similar above-ground microclimates, but very different soil conditions. Soils were warm and dry on the terrace, cool and moist in the forest and cold and seasonally wet the treeline. Photosynthesis, needle nitrogen (N) concentration and soil N availability declined from the terrace to the forest to the treeline. Low N availability at the treeline was likely a consequence of limited microbial activity in the cold and seasonally wet soils. Soils at the treeline were colder than the terrace during the growing season and colder than the forest in winter, when the treeline maintains a shallow snowpack. Our results highlight the potential for an indirect effect of temperature on the growth of trees at the Arctic treeline and suggest that treeline responses to changes in climate may be more complex than previously thought.