Increased spring freezing vulnerability for alpine shrubs under early snowmelt
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Alpine dwarf shrub communities are phenologically linked with snowmelt timing, so early spring exposure may increase risk of freezing damage during early development, and consequently reduce seasonal growth. We examined whether environmental factors (duration of snow cover, elevation) influenced size and the vulnerability of shrubs to spring freezing along elevational gradients and snow microhabitats by modelling the past frequency of spring freezing events. We sampled biomass and measured the size of Salix herbacea, Vaccinium myrtillus,Vaccinium uliginosum and Loiseleuria procumbens in late spring. Leaves were exposed to freezing temperatures to determine the temperature at which 50 % of specimens are killed for each species and sampling site. By linking site snowmelt and temperatures to long-term climate measurements, we extrapolated the frequency of spring freezing events at each elevation, snow microhabitat and per species over 37 years. Snowmelt timing was significantly driven by microhabitat effects, but was independent of elevation. Shrub growth was neither enhanced nor reduced by earlier snowmelt, but decreased with elevation. Freezing resistance was strongly species dependent, and did not differ along the elevation or snowmelt gradient. Microclimate extrapolation suggested that potentially lethal freezing events (in May and June) occurred for three of the four species examined. Freezing events never occurred on late snow beds, and increased in frequency with earlier snowmelt and higher elevation. Extrapolated freezing events showed a slight, non-significant increase over the 37-year record. We suggest that earlier snowmelt does not enhance growth in four dominant alpine shrubs, but increases the risk of lethal spring freezing exposure for less freezing-resistant species.