Influence of land use and climate on recent forest expansion: a case study in the Eurosiberian–Mediterranean limit of north-west Spain

J.M. Alvarez-Martinez, S. Suarez-Seoane, J.J. Stoorvogel, E. de Luis Calabuig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


1.In Mediterranean mountainous areas, forests have expanded in recent decades because traditional management practices have been abandoned or reduced. However, understanding the ecological mechanisms behind landscape change is a complex undertaking because the influence of land use may be reinforced or constrained by abiotic factors such as climate. In this work, we evaluated their combined effects on recent forest expansion across climatic, topographic and management gradients. 2.We used orthorectified aerial photographs from the second half of the twentieth century (1956, 1974, 1983, 1990 and 2004) to monitor changes in forest distribution in a set of 20 head-water basins in the Cantabrian Mountains of north-west Spain, at the Eurosiberian–Mediterranean limit. In particular, we evaluated the role of land-use history (comparing natural vs. anthropic basins) and microclimate (comparing shaded vs. sunny aspects) of forest gain/loss rates and spatial distribution shifts. Finally, we applied Species Distribution Modelling techniques (MaxEnt and BIOMOD) in the stated scenarios of land-use history and microclimate, to assess habitat suitability for forest expansion on the basis of topography, soil properties and mesoclimatic variables. 3.Forest cover increased from 10.72% in 1956 to 27.67% in 2004 in the area. The rate of expansion was significantly higher in natural basins and, particularly, on shaded slopes. In all cases, the mean elevation of new forest patches increased during the study period, which was particularly evident on natural sunny slopes. The performance of the models and the magnitude of the effects varied across land-use histories and microclimatic conditions. Soil properties and temperature and precipitation in late spring and early summer were the main drivers of forest expansion in modelling exercises, although expansion rates and upward altitudinal shifts were primarily controlled by land-use history and the biogeographic origin of the forests. 4.Synthesis. The combination of monitoring and modelling techniques used in this work contributed to the understanding of forest expansion in cultural systems, indicating that ecological succession is not a homogeneous process, but varies spatially due to human and abiotic constraints since historical times.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)905-919
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • species distribution models
  • global change
  • cover change
  • agricultural abandonment
  • vegetation dynamics
  • iberian peninsula
  • spatial-analysis
  • driving forces
  • mountain areas
  • change impacts


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