, Volume 163, Issue 1, pp 267-276
Date: 17 Mar 2010

Summer freezing resistance decreased in high-elevation plants exposed to experimental warming in the central Chilean Andes

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Abstract

Alpine habitats have been proposed as particularly sensitive to climate change. Shorter snow cover could expose high-elevation plants to very low temperatures, increasing their risk of suffering damage by freezing, hence decreasing their population viability. In addition, a longer and warmer growing season could affect the hardening process on these species. Thus, understanding the ability of these species to withstand freezing events under warmer conditions is essential for predicting how alpine species may respond to future climate changes. Here we assessed the freezing resistance of 11 species from the central Chilean Andes by determining their low temperature damage (LT50) and freezing point (FP) after experimental warming in the field. Plants were exposed during two growing seasons to a passive increase in the air temperature using open top chambers (OTCs). OTCs increased by ca. 3 K the mean air and soil daytime temperatures, but had smaller effects on freezing temperatures. Leaf temperature of the different species was on average 5.5 K warmer inside OTCs at midday. While LT50 of control plants ranged from −9.9 to −22.4, that of warmed plants ranged from −7.4 to −17.3°C. Overall, high-Andean species growing inside OTCs increased their LT50 ca. 4 K, indicating that warming decreased their ability to survive severe freezing events. Moreover, plants inside OTCs increased the FP ca. 2 K in some studied species, indicating that warming altered processes of ice crystal formation. Resistance of very low temperatures is a key feature of high-elevation species; our results suggest that current climate warming trends will seriously threaten the survival of high-elevation plants by decreasing their ability to withstand severe freezing events.

Communicated by Robert Pearcy.