The past ecology of Abies alba provides new perspectives on future responses of silver fir forests to global warming

Tinner, Willy; Colombaroli, Daniele; Heiri, Oliver; Henne, Paul D.; Steinacher, Marco; Untenecker, Johanna; Vescovi, Elisa; Allen, Judy R. M.; Carraro, Gabriele; Conedera, Marco; Joos, Fortunat; Lotter, André F.; Luterbacher, Jürg; Samartin, Stéphanie; Valsecchi, Verushka (2013). The past ecology of Abies alba provides new perspectives on future responses of silver fir forests to global warming. Ecological Monographs, 83(4), pp. 419-439. Ecological Society of America 10.1890/12-2231.1

2013_EcolMonogr_83_419.pdf - Published Version
Available under License Publisher holds Copyright.

Download (8MB) | Preview

Paleoecology can provide valuable insights into the ecology of species that complement observation and experiment-based assessments of climate impact dynamics. New paleoecological records (e.g., pollen, macrofossils) from the Italian Peninsula suggest a much wider climatic niche of the important European tree species Abies alba (silver fir) than observed in its present spatial range. To explore this discrepancy between current and past distribution of the species, we analyzed climatic data (temperature, precipitation, frost, humidity, sunshine) and vegetation-independent paleoclimatic reconstructions (e.g., lake levels, chironomids) and use global coupled carbon-cycle climate (NCAR CSM1.4) and dynamic vegetation (LandClim) modeling. The combined evidence suggests that during the mid-Holocene (6000 years ago), prior to humanization of vegetation, A. alba formed forests under conditions that exceeded the modern (1961-1990) upper temperature limit of the species by 5-7°C (July means). Annual precipitation during this natural period was comparable to today (>700-800 mm), with drier summers and wetter winters. In the meso-Mediterranean to sub-Mediterranean forests A. alba co-occurred with thermophilous taxa such as Quercus ilex, Q. pubescens, Olea europaea, Phillyrea, Arbutus, Cistus, Tilia, Ulmus, Acer, Hedera helix, Ilex aquifolium, Taxus, and Vitis. Results from the last interglacial (ca. 130 000-115 000 BP), when human impact was negligible, corroborate the Holocene evidence. Thermophilous Mediterranean A. alba stands became extinct during the last 5000 years when land-use pressure and specifically excessive anthropogenic fire and browsing disturbance increased. Our results imply that the ecology of this key European tree species is not yet well understood. On the basis of the reconstructed realized climatic niche of the species, we anticipate that the future geographic range of A. alba may not contract regardless of migration success, even if climate should become significantly warmer than today with summer temperatures increasing by up to 5-7°C, as long as precipitation does not fall below 700-800 mm/yr, and anthropogenic disturbance (e.g., fire, browsing) does not become excessive. Our finding contradicts recent studies that projected range contractions under global-warming scenarios, but did not factor how millennia of human impacts reduced the realized climatic niche of A. alba.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Further Contribution)


08 Faculty of Science > Physics Institute > Climate and Environmental Physics
10 Strategic Research Centers > Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR)
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) > Palaeoecology
08 Faculty of Science > Physics Institute
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS)

UniBE Contributor:

Tinner, Willy, Colombaroli, Daniele, Heiri, Oliver, Henne, Paul Daniel, Steinacher, Marco, Vescovi, Elisa, Joos, Fortunat, Luterbacher, Jürg


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology
900 History > 910 Geography & travel
500 Science > 530 Physics
500 Science > 580 Plants (Botany)




Ecological Society of America




Doris Rätz

Date Deposited:

24 Apr 2014 08:32

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 14:31

Publisher DOI:


Related URLs:

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Abies alba, bioclimatic envelope models, climate models, climatic niche, dynamic vegetation models, global change, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, realized niche




Actions (login required)

Edit item Edit item
Provide Feedback