Fire enhances the complexity of forest structure in alpine treeline ecotones:

C. Alina Cansler, Donald McKenzie, Charles B. Halpern

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Alpine treelines are expected to move upward in a warming climate, but downward in response to increases in wildfire. We studied the effects of fire on vegetation structure and composition across four alpine treeline ecotones extending from Abies lasiocarpa/Picea engelmannii forests at lower elevations, through Pinus albicaulis/Larix lyallii parkland, to alpine tundra. We estimated the probabilities of burning and transitions between states following fire among four canopy-cover (structural) classes: non-forest (0% tree cover), sparse woodland (40% tree cover). We also evaluated changes in the size structure and composition of live overstory trees (≥1.4 m height) due to mortality following fire. The severity and resulting effects of fire varied among structural classes: Non-forest was less likely to burn than the landscape as a whole; open forest was more likely to remain forest than to change to non-forest; and closed forest never changed to non-forest, irrespective of burn severity. Higher-severity fires caused greater mortality of larger-diameter trees than of smaller-diameter trees. Our results suggest that structural components of the alpine treeline will not respond unidirectionally to a warming climate nor to an increase in fire. Instead, the ecotone will expand bidirectionally and develop larger, more heterogeneous patches of vegetation.
Original languageAmerican English
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2018


  • Abies lasiocarpa
  • Larix lyallii
  • North Cascades
  • Northern Rockies
  • Pacific Northwest
  • Pinus albicaulis


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