Winter climate change in alpine tundra: plant responses to changes in snow depth and snowmelt timing

Research paper by Sonja Wipf, Veronika Stoeckli, Peter Bebi

Indexed on: 17 Feb '09Published on: 17 Feb '09Published in: Climatic Change


Snow is an important environmental factor in alpine ecosystems, which influences plant phenology, growth and species composition in various ways. With current climate warming, the snow-to-rain ratio is decreasing, and the timing of snowmelt advancing. In a 2-year field experiment above treeline in the Swiss Alps, we investigated how a substantial decrease in snow depth and an earlier snowmelt affect plant phenology, growth, and reproduction of the four most abundant dwarf-shrub species in an alpine tundra community. By advancing the timing when plants started their growing season and thus lost their winter frost hardiness, earlier snowmelt also changed the number of low-temperature events they experienced while frost sensitive. This seemed to outweigh the positive effects of a longer growing season and hence, aboveground growth was reduced after advanced snowmelt in three of the four species studied. Only Loiseleuria procumbens, a specialist of wind exposed sites with little snow, benefited from an advanced snowmelt. We conclude that changes in the snow cover can have a wide range of species-specific effects on alpine tundra plants. Thus, changes in winter climate and snow cover characteristics should be taken into account when predicting climate change effects on alpine ecosystems.