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Dynamics and Drivers of the Alpine Timberline on Gongga Mountain of Tibetan Plateau-Adopted from the Otsu Method on Google Earth Engine

Update time: 01/19/2021
 The alpine timberline, an ecosystem ecotone, indicates climatic change and is tending to shift toward higher altitudes because of an increase in global warming. However, spatiotemporal variations of the alpine timberline are not consistent on a global scale. The abundant and highest alpine timberline, located on the Tibetan Plateau, is less subject to human activity and disturbance. Although many studies have investigated the alpine timberline on the Tibetan Plateau, large-scale monitoring of spatial-temporal dynamics and driving mechanisms of the alpine timberline remain uncertain and inaccurate. Hence, the Gongga Mountain on the southeastern Tibetan Plateau was chosen as the study area because of the most complete natural altitudinal zonation. We used the Otsu method on Google Earth Engine to extract the alpine timberline from 1987-2019 based on the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI). Then, the alpine timberline spatiotemporal patterns and the effect of topography on alpine timberline distribution were explored. Four hillsides on the western Gongga Mountain were selected to examine the hillside differences and drivers of the alpine timberline based on principal component analysis (PCA) and multiple linear regression (MLR). The results indicated that the elevation range of alpine timberline was 3203-4889 m, and the vegetation coverage increased significantly (p< 0.01) near the alpine timberline ecotone on Gongga Mountain. Moreover, there was spatial heterogeneity in dynamics of alpine timberline, and some regions showed no regular trend in variations. The spatial pattern of the alpine timberline was generally high in the west, low in the east, and primarily distributed on 15-55 degrees slopes. Besides, the drivers of the alpine timberline have the hillside differences, and the sunny and shady slopes possessed different driving factors. Thus, our results highlight the effects of topography and climate on the alpine timberline on different hillsides. These findings could provide a better approach to study the dynamics and formation of alpine timberlines.