Will loss of snow cover during climatic warming expose New Zealand alpine plants to increased frost damage?
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If snow cover in alpine environments were reduced through climatic warming, plants that are normally protected by snow-lie in winter would become exposed to greater extremes of temperature and solar radiation. We examined the annual course of frost resistance of species of native alpine plants from southern New Zealand that are normally buried in snowbanks over winter (Celmisia haastii and Celmisia prorepens) or in sheltered areas that may accumulate snow (Hebe odora) and other species, typical of more exposed areas, that are relatively snow-free (Celmisia viscosa, Poa colensoi, Dracophyllum muscoides). The frost resistance of these principal species was in accord with habitat: those from snowbanks or sheltered areas showed the least frost resistance, whereas species from exposed areas had greater frost resistance throughout the year. P. colensoi had the greatest frost resistance (−32.5°C). All the principal species showed a rapid increase in frost resistance from summer to early winter (February–June) and maximum frost resistance in winter (July–August). The loss of resistance in late winter to early summer (August–December) was most rapid in P. colensoi and D. muscoides. Seasonal frost resistance of the principal species was more strongly related to daylength than to temperature, although all species except C. viscosa were significantly related to temperature when the influence of daylength was accounted for. Measurements of chlorophyll fluorescence indicated that photosynthetic efficiency of the principal species declined with increasing daylength. Levels of frost resistance of the six principal alpine plant species, and others measured during the growing season, were similar to those measured in tropical alpine areas and somewhat more resistant than those recorded in alpine areas of Europe. The potential for frost damage was greatest in spring. The current relationship of frost resistance with daylength is sufficient to prevent damage at any time of year. While warmer temperatures might lower frost resistance, they would also reduce the incidence of frosts, and the incidence of frost damage is unlikely to be altered. The relationship of frost resistance with daylength and temperature potentially provides a means of predicting the responses of alpine plants in response to global warming.