The impacts of climate change on alpine summit floras have been widely investigated. However, only few studies included alpine grasslands and generally concluded that snowbeds, with a long snow cover duration and a short growing season, and windy ridges, with a short snow cover duration and strong winter frosts, are the most sensitive alpine grasslands. However, these habitats were mostly investigated in different regions, where local factors (e.g. nitrogen deposition, grazing) can co-vary with climate changes, potentially obscuring differences between habitats. Here, we focused on the Zermatt region (Swiss Alps) to investigate the impacts of climate change on snowbeds and windy ridges. Forty-three exhaustive historical plant inventories on windy ridges (acidophilic or basophilic) and 31 inventories in snowbeds (typical or wet) were repeated in quasi-permanent plots after approximately 23 years. Historical and recent records were compared with the Simpson index, Bray–Curtis dissimilarity, a PCA, ecological indicator values and the frequency and cover changes of species. There was a general increase in α-diversity and a decrease in β-diversity (homogenisation). Most of the new species in the plots were generalists from surrounding grasslands. The plant composition tended to be more thermophilous on acidophilic windy ridges and in typical snowbeds. The flora of acidophilic windy ridges became more similar to that of basophilic windy ridges and more eutrophic. We interpreted this as possibly arising from fertilisation by the aeolian dust deposition coming from the expanding glacial moraine in the valley. In snowbeds, the species indicated increasingly drier conditions, especially in wet snowbeds. Warming climate induces lower snowfall and earlier snowmelt, leading to a shorter snow cover duration. Hence, wet snowbeds are certainly among the most threatened plant communities by climate change in the Alps.
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We are grateful to J.-L. Richard, B. Bressoud, C. Käsermann, S. Krähenmann, F. Meyer and S. Reist who collected the historical data, to A. Steiner who transmitted them to us, to M. Vust for his help in lichen identification and to J. Alexander for English editing. We also thank the Burgergemeinde Zermatt for authorising this study on their properties and the Zermatt Bergbahnen AG for offering the travelling costs for the cable cars during fieldwork.
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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Declaration of authorship
All authors designed the study, LL and SM inventoried the plots in the fields and analysed the data under the advices of MM and PV, and all authors contributed to the manuscript.
The authors declare that they respected ethical standards.
The investigation in the field was conducted with authorisation of the Burgergemeinde Zermatt.
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Liberati, L., Messerli, S., Matteodo, M. et al. Contrasting impacts of climate change on the vegetation of windy ridges and snowbeds in the Swiss Alps. Alp Botany 129, 95–105 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00035-019-00223-5
- Salicion herbaceae
- Snow cover
- Quasi-permanent plots
- Vegetation dynamics