Treelines are the elevation or latitudinal limits where trees are capable of growth or survival and are considered to be early indicators of climate warming because they are constrained primarily by cold temperatures.
Summer temperature is widely considered to be the primary control of treeline formation and maintenance, whereas winter temperatures have previously been considered less critical because of the insulative effects of snow.
This study reveals how winter warming has overturned this prevailing view.
"Average temperatures have risen over the last century, with a more pronounced and rapid change at high altitudes and latitudes," said Melanie Harsch from the Bio-Protection Research Centre in New Zealand.
"Within these zones, treelines are thought to be more temperature sensitive and so the rise in summer temperatures should result in an advance of treeline position," she added.
Harsch and her co-authors conducted a multivariate meta-analysis, using a global dataset of 166 treeline sites with temperature data taken from the closest climate station to each site.
The team used this data to analyze treeline advance throughout the 20th century and consider the contributing factors to that advance.
The team found that only 87 of the 166 sites (52 percent) had advanced while simultaneously the mean annual local temperatures had increased at 111 of the 166 sites at an average rate of 0.013 degrees Celsius a year (or 1 degrees C in 77 years).
Of the remaining sites, 77 (47 percent) remained stable and only two (1 percent) had treelines that receded.
Both of the receding sites showed evidence of disturbance, indicating that regardless of form, location or degree of temperature change experienced over the last century, treeline positions have either advanced or remained static.
"Surprisingly these results reveal that treelines are not universally responding to climate warming by advancing, as expected," said Harsch.
Another surprising result of this study was the association with winter, rather than summer, warming.
These results provide no evidence of the prevailing view that high altitude and latitude treelines are controlled only by summer temperatures.
Instead, they show that treelines are more likely to advance at sites that had warmed during the winter months.
It is known, at least in northern latitudes that climate-associated changes in winter conditions are on average more extreme than changes in summer conditions.
"These results show that treelines are responding to warming, but are not consistent in that only half of the sites showed signs of advance despite most sites experiencing warming," said Harsch.