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Geoecological parameters indicate discrepancies between potential and actual forest area in the forest-steppe of Central Mongolia

Background: Forest distribution in the forest-steppe of Mongolia depends on relief, permafrost, and climate, and is highly sensitive to climate change and anthropogenic disturbance. Forest fires and logging decreased the forest area in the forest-steppe of Mongolia. The intention of this study was to identify the geoecological parameters that control forest distribution and living-tree biomass in this semi-arid environment. Based on these parameters, we aimed to delineate the area that forest might potentially occupy and to analyse the spatial patterns of actual and potential tree biomass. Methods: We used a combination of various geographic methods in conjunction with statistical analyses to identify the key parameters controlling forest distribution. In several field campaigns, we mapped tree biomass and ecological parameters in a study area within the Tarvagatai Nuruu National Park (central Mongolia). Forest areas, topographic parameters and vegetation indices were obtained from remote sensing data. Significant correlations between forest distribution and living-tree biomass on one hand, and topographic parameters, climate data, and environmental conditions on the other hand, were used to delineate the area of potential forest distribution and to estimate total living-tree biomass for this area. Results: Presence of forest on slopes was controlled by the factors elevation, aspect, slope, mean annual precipitation, and mean growing-season temperature. Combining these factors allowed for estimation of potential forest area but was less suitable for tree-biomass delineation. No significant differences in mean living-tree biomass existed between sites exposed to different local conditions with respect to forest fire, exploitation, and soil properties. Tree biomass was reduced at forest edges (defined as 30m wide belt), in small fragmented and in large forest stands. Tree biomass in the study area was 20 × 109 g (1,086 km2 forest area), whereas the potential tree biomass would reach up to 65 × 109 g (> 3168 km2).

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