In this field study we analysed the regional and local scale effects of disturbance and climate on altitudinal treelines dominated by Nothofagus pumilio in northern Patagonia. We compared two regions west and east of the Andes at 40° S, slopes with warm vs cool aspects and undisturbed vs locally disturbed treelines. This spatial framework allowed us to test (1) for differences among treelines affected by different types of local disturbance and (2) the traditional hypothesis that low temperature limits treeline. Contingency tables and ANOVA showed that local disturbance occurred more frequently than expected on slopes with cool aspects, steep slope angles and concave slope configuration. Disturbed treelines were locally lowered with longer ecotones and lower krummholz growth rates and vegetation cover than undisturbed treelines. Three-way ANOVA showed the significant influences of study area (regional climate) and aspect (local climate) on treeline elevation, krummholz growth rates and density, tree density and vegetation cover, while accounting for local disturbance. Treeline elevations were higher east of the Andes reflecting the more continental climate in Argentina than in Chile, plus regional impacts of volcanic eruptions. Tree density and vegetation cover were greater west of the Andes reflecting greater precipitation in Chile. Within study areas, local climate had different influences on treeline elevations and krummholz growth rates west and east of the Andes. We predict that increased tree growth and upslope advance of treeline in response to global warming is more likely in Chile than in Argentina near 40° S, unless precipitation increases east of the Andes. To test these predictions, we recommend research be stratified to account for the influences of local disturbance, which may confound climatic impacts. In northern Patagonia, suitable control (undisturbed) study sites will most likely be found at upper slope positions with low slope angles, simple microtopography and straight topographic configuration.
Nomenclature: Muñoz (1966).
Abbreviation: TRMI = Topographic relative moisture index.