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A Word from Alpine Tundra: Watch Out, Forests Are Invading! – Spatial Detection of Alpine Treeline Ecotones in the Western United States
  • Chenyang Wei,
  • Adam Wilson
Chenyang Wei
University at Buffalo

Corresponding Author:cwei5@buffalo.edu

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Adam Wilson
SUNY Buffalo
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Human-mediated climate change over the past century has made significant impacts on global ecosystems and biodiversity including accelerating redistribution of the geographic ranges of species. In mountainous regions, the transition zone from continuous closed-canopy subalpine forests to treeless alpine tundra areas at higher elevations is commonly referred to as ‘Alpine Treeline Ecotone’ (ATE). Globally, warming climate is expected to drive the ATE upslope, which could lead to negative impacts on local biodiversity and modify ecosystem function. However, existing studies rely primarily on field-based data which are difficult and time consuming to collect. In this research, we define three critical characteristics of the ATE including 1) an abrupt spatial shift in vegetative activity as elevation varies, 2) reduction in vegetative activity as elevation increases, and 3) vegetative activity is at an intermediate level. Using the geospatial tools provided by Google Earth Engine, we construct an index (ATEI) to identify areas with the three ATE features based on the image gradients of vegetative activity and elevation datasets. Based on the ATEI and Google Earth imagery in 115 Landsat pixels, we establish a Logistic regression model to estimate the probability of whether or not a sampled pixel is located within the ATE. The prediction accuracy is approximately 80%. Furthermore, the ATEI-estimated ATE elevation is strongly correlated (r = 0.96) with a set of field-based data at 20 sampling sites from across the region. Based on the average annual ATEIs from 2009 to 2011, we estimate the average ATE elevation for each mountain range in the western U.S. The result varies from 1,183 m to 3,584 m. The detection metric developed in this study facilitates monitoring the geographic location and potential shifts of ATEs as well as the general impact of climate change in mountainous regions during recent decades. We also expect this approach to be useful in monitoring other ecosystem boundaries.