This review summarizes the present knowledge about effects of climate change on conifers within the treeline ecotone of the Central Austrian Alps. After examining the treeline environment and the tree growth with respect to elevation, possible effects of climate change on carbon gain and water relations derived from space-for-time studies and manipulative experiments are outlined. Finally, long-term observational records are discussed, working towards conclusions on tree growth in a future, warmer environment. Increases in CO2
levels along with climate warming interact in complex ways on trees at the treeline. Because treeline trees are not carbon limited, climate warming (rather than the rising atmospheric CO2
level) causes alterations in the ecological functioning of the treeline ecotone in the Central Austrian Alps. Although the water uptake from soils is improved by further climate warming due to an increased permeability of root membranes and aquaporin-mediated changes in root conductivity, tree survival at the treeline also depends on competitiveness for belowground resources. The currently observed seedling re-establishment at the treeline in the Central European Alps is an invasion into potential habitats due to decreasing grazing pressure rather than an upward-migration due to climate warming, suggesting that the treeline in the Central Austrian Alps behaves in a conservative way. Nevertheless, to understand the altitude of the treeline, one must also consider seedling establishment. As there is a lack of knowledge on this particular topic within the treeline ecotone in the Central Austrian Alps, we conclude further research has to focus on the importance of this life stage for evaluating treeline shifts and limits in a changing environment.
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