Climate Change

Mass elevation effect and its forcing on timberline altitude

  • 1. Geographic Information and Tourism College, Chuzhou University, Chuzhou 239000, Anhui, China;
    2. State Key Laboratory of Resource and Environment Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China;
    3. State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science, CAS, Beijing 100085, China;
    4. Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Beijing 100081, China

Received date: 2011-11-10

  Revised date: 2011-12-09

  Online published: 2012-07-10

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41030528; No.40971064; Innovation Project of State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System (LREIS)


The concept of mass elevation effect (massenerhebungseffect, MEE) was introduced by A. de Quervain about 100 years ago to account for the observed tendency for temperature-related parameters such as tree line and snowline to occur at higher elevations in the central Alps than on their outer margins. It also has been widely observed in other areas of the world, but there have not been significant, let alone quantitative, researches on this phenomenon. Especially, it has been usually completely neglected in developing fitting models of timberline elevation, with only longitude or latitude considered as impacting factors. This paper tries to quantify the contribution of MEE to timberline elevation. Considering that the more extensive the land mass and especially the higher the mountain base in the interior of land mass, the greater the mass elevation effect, this paper takes mountain base elevation (MBE) as the magnitude of MEE. We collect 157 data points of timberline elevation, and use their latitude, longitude and MBE as independent variables to build a multiple linear regression equation for timberline elevation in the southeastern Eurasian continent. The results turn out that the contribution of latitude, longitude and MBE to timberline altitude reach 25.11%, 29.43%, and 45.46%, respectively. North of northern latitude 32°, the three factors’ contribution amount to 48.50%, 24.04%, and 27.46%, respectively; to the south, their contribution is 13.01%, 48.33%, and 38.66%, respectively. This means that MBE, serving as a proxy indicator of MEE, is a significant factor determining the elevation of alpine timberline. Compared with other factors, it is more stable and independent in affecting timberline elevation. Of course, the magnitude of the actual MEE is certainly determined by other factors, including mountain area and height, the distance to the edge of a land mass, the structures of the mountains nearby. These factors need to be included in the study of MEE quantification in the future. This paper could help build up a high-accuracy and multi-scale elevation model for alpine timberline and even other altitudinal belts.

Cite this article

HAN Fang, YAO Yonghui, DAI Shibao, WANG Chun, SUN Ranhao, XU Juan, ZHANG Baiping . Mass elevation effect and its forcing on timberline altitude[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2012 , 22(4) : 609 -616 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-012-0950-1


Aas B, Faarlund T, 1996. The present and the Holocene birth belt in Norway. Pal?o-klimaforschung, 20: 18-24.
Alvarez-Uria P, K?rner C, 2007. Low temperature limits of root growth in deciduous and evergreen temperate treespecies. Functional Ecology, 21(2): 211-218.
Barry R G, 1992. Mountain Weather and Climate. London and New York: Routledge, 57.
Chen L X, Reiter E R, Feng Z Q, 1985. The atmospheric heat-source over the Tibetan Plateau -May -August1979. Monthly Weather Review, 113(10): 1771-1790.
Daubenmire R, 1954. Alpine timberline in the Americas and their interpretation. Bulter Univ. Bot. Stud., (11):119-136.
Fang J Y, Chen Z H, Cun H T, 2004. Ecological characteristics of mountains and research issues of mountainecology. Biodiversity Science, 12(1): 10-19. (in Chinese)
Fang J Y, Liu G H, Guo Q H, 1999. Distribution patterns of Chinese beech (Fagus L.) species in relation to topography. Acta Botanica Sinica, 41(7): 766-774. (in Chinese)
Flenley J, 2007. Ultraviolet insolation and the tropical rainforest: Altitudinal variations, Quaternary and recentchange, extinctions, and biodiversity. In: Flenley J R, Bush M B. Tropical Rainforest Responses to Climatic Change. UK: Jointly published with Praxis Publishing, 219-235.
Flenley J R, 1995. Cloud forest, the Massenerhebung effect, and ultraviolet insolation. Tropical Montane Cloud Forests, 110: 150-155.
Flohn H, 1953. Hochgebirge und allgemeine Zirkulation. II. Gebirge als W?rmequellen. Archiv fur Meteorologie, Geophsik und Bioklimatologie, 5A: 265-279.
Grubb P J, 1971. Interpretation of Massenerhebung effect on tropical mountains. Nature, 229(5279): 44-45.
Hedberg O, 1964. études écologiques de la flore afroalpine. Bulletin de la Société Royale Botanique de Belgique,97: 5-18.
Hermes K, 1955. Die Lage der oberen Waldgrenze in den Gebirgender der Erde und ihr Abstand zur Schneegrenze.K?lner Geo-graphische Arbeiten, 5: 115.
Holtmeier F K, 2009. Mountain timberlines ecology, patchiness, and dynamics. Advances in Global Change Research,36: 1-437.
Holtmeier F K, Broll G, 2005. Sensitivity and response of Northern Hemisphere altitudinal and polar treelines toenvironmental change at landscape and local scales. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 14(5): 395-410.
Jobbagy E G, Jackson R B, 2000. Global controls of forest line elevation in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Global Ecology and Biogeography, 9(3): 253-268.
K?rner C, 1998. A re-assessment of high elevation treeline positions and their explanation. Oecologia, 115(4):445-459.
K?rner J P, 2004. A world-wide study of high altitude treeline temperatures. Journal of Biogeography, 31(5):713-732.
Leonelli C, 2009. Detecting climatic treelines in the Italian Alps: The influence of geomorphological factors andhuman impacts. Physical Geography, 30(4): 338-352.
Leuschner C, 1996. Timberline and alpine vegetation on the tropical and warm-temperate oceanic islands of theworld: Elevation, structure and floristics. Vegetation, 123(2): 193-206.
Li W H, Zhou P C, 1979. Study on the distribution of the spruce-fir forest on Eurasia and its modeling. Natural Resources, 1(1): 21-34. (in Chinese)
Malyshev L, 1993. Levels of the upper forest boundary in northern Asia. Vegetation, 109(2): 175-186.
Martin P S, 1963. Geochronology of pluvial lake cochise, southern Arizona. II. Pollen analysis of a 42-meter core. Ecology, 44(3): 436-444.
Miehe S, 1994. Humidity-dependent sequences of altitudinal vegetation belts in the northwestern Karakorum. In: Pan Y S, Zheng D, Zhang Q S. Proceedings of International Symposium on the Karakoram Mountains. Beijing:China Meteorological Press, 347-363.
Ohsawa M, 1990. An interpretation of latitudinal patterns of forest limits in South and East Asia. Journal of Ecology, 78(2): 326-339.
Ozenda P, 1989. The vertical displacement of the stages of vegetation as a function of the latitude: A simple modeland its limits. Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France, 5(3): 535-540.
Quervain A D, 1904. Die Hebung der atmosphärischen lsothermenin der Schweizer Alpen und ihre Beziehung zuderen Höhengrenzen. Gerlands Beitrage zur Geophysik, 6: 481-533.
Sapozhnikov V V, 1916. Near the upper frontier of vegetation. In: Collected Papers Dedicated to K. A. Timiryazevby His Pupils. Moscow, 85-102.
Schroeter C, 1908. Das pflanzenleben der Alpen: Eine schilderung der hochgebrigsflora. Verlag von Albert Raustein, Zurich, Switzerland: Verlag von Albert Raustein.
Tan J, Zhang B P, Sun R H, 2008. A framework for digitally integrating mountain altitudinal belt spectra in the Eurasian Continent. Journal of Mountain Science, 26(6): 641-651. (in Chinese)
Tranquillini W, 1985. Physiological Ecology of the Alpine Timberline: Tree Existence at High Special Referenceto the European Alps. Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag, 1-12, 118-148.
Troll C, 1972. Geoecology of the world-wide different of high-mountain ecosystems. In: Troll C ed. Geoecologyof the High Mountain Regions of Eurasia. Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner Verlag Gmbh., 1-16.
Wang X P, Wang Z H, Fang J Y, 2004. Mountain ranges and peaks in China. Chinese Biodiversity, 12(1): 206-212.(in Chinese)
Yeh T, 1982. Some aspects of the thermal influences of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau on the atmospheric circulation.Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics, 31(3): 205-220.
Zhang B P, Wu H Z, Xiao F, 2006. Integration of data on Chinese mountains into a digital altitudinal belt system. Mountain Research and Development, 26(2): 163-171.
Zheng Y C, Wang M J, 1996. A study on the mathematical model of the vertical distribution of natural belts in thesoutheastern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and their ecological analysis. Journal of Natural Resources,11(3): 249-255. (in Chinese)