Warming acts through earlier snowmelt to advance but not extend alpine community flowering.

Research paper by Meredith D MD Jabis, Daniel E DE Winkler, Lara M LM Kueppers

Indexed on: 27 May '20Published on: 27 May '20Published in: Ecology


Large-scale warming will alter multiple local climate factors in alpine tundra, yet very few experimental studies examine the combined yet distinct influences of earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures and altered soil moisture on alpine ecosystems. This limits our ability to predict responses to climate change by plant species and communities. To address this gap, we used infrared heaters and manual watering in a fully factorial experiment to determine the relative importance of these climate factors on plant flowering phenology, and response differences among plant functional groups. Heating advanced snowmelt and flower initiation, but exposed plants to colder early-spring conditions in the period prior to first flower, indicating that snowmelt timing, not temperature, advances flowering initiation in the alpine community. Flowering duration was largely conserved; heating did not extend average species flowering into the latter part of the growing season but instead flowering was completed earlier in heated plots. Although passive warming experiments have resulted in warming-induced soil drying suggested to advance flower senescence, supplemental water did not counteract the average species advance in flowering senescence caused by heating or extend flowering in unheated plots, and variation in soil moisture had inconsistent effects on flowering periods. Functional groups differed in sensitivity to earlier snowmelt, with flower initiation most advanced for early-season species and flowering duration lengthened only for graminoids and forbs. We conclude that earlier snowmelt, driven by increased radiative heating, is the most important factor altering alpine flowering phenology. Studies that only manipulate summer temperature will err in estimating the sensitivity of alpine flowering phenology to large-scale warming. The wholesale advance in flowering phenology with earlier snowmelt suggests that alpine communities will track warming, but only alpine forbs and graminoids appear able to take advantage of an extended snow-free season. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.