Question: Lower montane treeline ecotones such as the inner Alpine dry valleys are regarded as sensitive to climate change. In the dry Valais valley (Switzerland) the composition of the widespread, low altitude Pinus forests is shifting towards a mixed deciduous state. The sub-boreal P. sylvestris shows high mortality rates, whereas the deciduous sub-mediterranean Quercus pubescens is spreading. These species may act as early indicators of climate change. We evaluate this hypothesis by focusing on their differences in drought tolerance, which are hardly known, but are likely to be crucial in the current forest shift and also for future forest development.
Methods: We used dendroecological methods to detect species-specific patterns in the growth response to drought. The relationship between radial growth of 401 trees from 15 mixed stands and drought was analysed by calculating response functions using yearly tree-ring indices and monthly drought indices. PCA was applied to the response ratios to discover spatial patterns of drought response.
Results: A species-specific response to moisture as well as a sub-regional differentiation of the response patterns were found. While Quercus showed a response mainly to the conditions of the previous autumn and those of current spring, Pinus did not start responding before May, but showed responses throughout the whole summer. Quercus may restrict physiological activity to moist periods; growth of Pinus was much more dependent on prior growth.
Conclusions: Given that the climate is changing towards (1) longer summer drought periods, (2) higher mean temperatures and (3) shifted seasonality of moisture availability, Quercus may benefit from adapting better to drier conditions. Pinus may increasingly face problems related to drought stress as it depends on summer moisture and has a smaller adaptive capacity due to its long-lived photosynthetic tissue.