Climatic Change

, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 105-121

First online:

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

  • Sonja WipfAffiliated withWSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLFInstitute of Environmental Sciences, University of ZurichThe Macaulay Institute Email author 
  • , Veronika StoeckliAffiliated withWSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF
  • , Peter BebiAffiliated withWSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF

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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.