Topographic heterogeneity explains patterns of vegetation response to climate change (1972–2008) across a mountain landscape, Niwot Ridge, Colorado
Bueno de Mesquita, C. P., Tillmann, L. S., Bernard, C. D., Rosemond, K. C., Molotch, N. P., & Suding, K. N. (2018). Topographic heterogeneity explains patterns of vegetation response to climate change (1972–2008) across a mountain landscape, Niwot Ridge, Colorado. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 50(1), e1504492.
The distributions of biomes worldwide are predicted to shift as vegetation tracks climate change. Ecologists often use coarse-scale climate models to predict these shifts along broad elevational and latitudinal gradients, but these assessments could fail to capture important dynamics by ignoring fine-scale heterogeneity. We ask how the elevational ranges of vegetation types have changed in a mountainous landscape, and investigate the influence of fine-scale topographic, snowpack, and soil properties on vegetation change. We manually classified vegetation from high-resolution repeat aerial photographs from 1972 and 2008 at Niwot Ridge, Colorado, USA, and generally found that trees and shrubs colonized tundra, while tundra colonized barren soils. Only shrubs expanded their elevational range. Several fine-scale topographic, soil and snow characteristics, including elevation, slope, solar radiation, soil bulk density, and interannual snowpack variability, modulated where plant establishment occurred. Each vegetation type had a unique suite of variables best predicting its establishment in new areas. We suggest that fine-scale heterogeneity may strongly control how plants in mountainous regions respond to climate change, and different vegetation types may be sensitive to different aspects of this heterogeneity. An improved understanding of the factors controlling vegetation change gives us a broader understanding of ecosystem response to climate change, nitrogen deposition, and release from grazing.