, Volume 7, Issue 6, pp 598-612

Nonintrusive Field Experiments Show Different Plant Responses to Warming and Drought Among Sites, Seasons, and Species in a North–South European Gradient

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Abstract

We used a novel, nonintrusive experimental system to examine plant responses to warming and drought across a climatic and geographical latitudinal gradient of shrubland ecosystems in four sites from northern to southern Europe (UK, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Spain). In the first two years of experimentation reported here, we measured plant cover and biomass by the pinpoint method, plant 14C uptake, stem and shoot growth, flowering, leaf chemical concentration, litterfall, and herbivory damage in the dominant plant species of each site. The two years of approximately 1°C experimental warming induced a 15% increase in total aboveground plant biomass growth in the UK site. Both direct and indirect effects of warming, such as longer growth season and increased nutrient availability, are likely to be particularly important in this and the other northern sites which tend to be temperature-limited. In the water-stressed southern site, there was no increase in total aboveground plant biomass growth as expected since warming increases water loss, and temperatures in those ecosystems are already close to the optimum for photosynthesis. The southern site presented instead the most negative response to the drought treatment consisting of a soil moisture reduction at the peak of the growing season ranging from 33% in the Spanish site to 82% in The Netherlands site. In the Spanish site there was a 14% decrease in total aboveground plant biomass growth relative to control. Flowering was decreased by drought (up to 24% in the UK and 40% in Spain). Warming and drought decreased litterfall in The Netherlands site (33% and 37%, respectively) but did not affect it in the Spanish site. The tissue P concentrations generally decreased and the N/P ratio increased with warming and drought except in the UK site, indicating a progressive importance of P limitation as a consequence of warming and drought. The magnitude of the response to warming and drought was thus very sensitive to differences among sites (cold-wet northern sites were more sensitive to warming and the warm-dry southern site was more sensitive to drought), seasons (plant processes were more sensitive to warming during the winter than during the summer), and species. As a result of these multiple plant responses, ecosystem and community level consequences may be expected.