Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2016, Vol. 26 ›› Issue (7): 871-877.doi: 10.1007/s11442-016-1303-2

• Orginal Article • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Implications of mass elevation effect for the altitudinal patterns of global ecology

Baiping ZHANG1,2(), Yonghui *YAO1()   

  1. 1. State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environment Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    2. Jiangsu Center for Collaborative Innovation in Geographical Information Resource Development and Application, Nanjing 210023, China
  • Received:2016-03-09 Accepted:2016-03-30 Online:2016-07-25 Published:2016-07-25
  • About author:

    Author: Zhang Baiping, Professor, specialized in physical geography and applied GIS. E-mail:

    *Corresponding author: Yao Yonghui, Associate Professor, E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41421001, No.41571099, No.41030528


The varied altitudinal gradient of climate and vegetation is further complicated by mass elevation effect (MEE), especially in high and extensive mountain regions. However, this effect and its implications for mountain altitudinal belts have not been well studied until recently. This paper provides an overview of the research carried out in the past 5 years. MEE is virtually the heating effect of mountain massifs and can be defined as the temperature difference on a given elevation between inside and outside of a mountain mass. It can be digitally modelled with three factors of intra-mountain base elevation (MBE), latitude and hygrometric continentality; MBE usually acts as the primary factor for the magnitude of MEE and, to a great extent, could represent MEE. MEE leads to higher treelines in the interior than in the outside of mountain masses. It makes montane forests to grow at 4800-4900 m and snowlines to develop at about 6000 m in the southern Tibetan Plateau and the central Andes, and large areas of forests to live above 3500 m in a lot of high mountains of the world. The altitudinal distribution of global treelines can be modelled with high precision when taking into account MEE and the result shows that MEE contributes the most to treeline distribution pattern. Without MEE, forests could only develop upmost to about 3500 m above sea level and the world ecological pattern would be much simpler. The quantification of MEE should be further improved with higher resolution data and its global implications are to be further revealed.

Key words: mass elevation effect, intra-mountain base elevation, treeline, altitudinal belt, Tibetan Plateau