Response of Swiss forests to management and climate change in the last 60 years

tomW_harvest_sighisoara_2008©WSL Swiss Federal Research Institute, Zürcherstrasse 111, 8903, Birmensdorf, Switzerland
Key Message: An analysis of plant species range shifts in Swiss forests shows that, to date, the impact of global warming has been weaker in comparison to the effects arising from forest management and land use change. Forest species in understorey vegetation, however, have shifted upslope 10 m per decade.

Abstract: Forest vegetation is forecasted to shift upslope several hundred metres by 2100 due to climate warming. However, only a small number of detailed assessments in selected regions have confirmed a climate response on the part of forest vegetation.

This study aimed to analyse the relative contributions of temperature and other factors to range shifts in forest vegetation by comparing old and revisited relevés in Swiss forests.

In order to investigate such range shifts, we revisited 451 relevé plots in forests in all parts of Switzerland. Collected data comprise two independent samples, one dating from the 1950s (age 60 sample) on 126 plots and the other dating from the 1990s (age 15 sample) on 325 plots. We defined an indicator value for elevation to estimate the upslope and downslope range shifts of forest species. The influence of different site factors on range shifts was assessed by variance partitioning using Landolt’s (2010) averaged species indicator values. Vegetation changes were analysed by balancing both increasing and decreasing frequencies of plant species.

Our findings show significant differences between the two survey periods, where the averaged species indicator for elevation varied greatly in both the age-60 and the age-15 samples. In addition, a significant upslope shift in the herbaceous forest layer (herbs and tree regeneration) of about 10 m per decade since the mid-twentieth century is evident. Downslope shifts were detected in the shrub/tree layer at lower elevations, which may be explained by factors other than climate warming.

To date, the impact of global warming on tree species composition in Swiss forests has been weaker in comparison to the effects arising from forest management and land use change. Understorey vegetation, however, shows a strong signal of upslope shift that may be explained most adequately by a combination of climate change and other factors.

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