Establishment of trees in subalpine meadows is a potential indicator of ecological effects of climate change. Tree establishment is a multi-year process including cone and seed production, germination, establishment, and growth, with each demographic step possibly sensitive to different climate limitations. While most studies have focused on one or a few steps, this study follows a cohort of individually marked saplings for 27 years beginning as seeds in two meadows on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park. These meadows are examples of a south-facing tall sedge community type rather than the north-facing heath-shrub type where establishment has usually been observed. Results showed that mortality was high for the first few years, but number of saplings stabilized after the first decade. Seedling mortality during germination and establishment was directly related to weather that resulted in high air and soil temperatures and drought, while mortality of established saplings was indirectly related to weather through effects on growth. Growth was enhanced by longer growing season and warmer minimum temperatures; growth over three years and sapling height were predictive of mortality. Most sapling survival occurred in lichen (primarily Trapeliopsis granulosa) and Vaccinium deliciosum plant communities. Many saplings are growing at very low rates compared with the rate predicted from adult trees. It is also apparent that while microsite within meadow (e.g., relative snow depth) is important in determining sapling success, the landscape position of meadows (e.g., north versus south aspect) exerts a higher-level control over whether a subalpine meadow is likely to disappear with warming climate.
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Vol. 94 • No. 3-4