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Can flowers affect land surface albedo and soil microclimates?

Abstract

The phenology of vegetation, namely leaf-out and senescence, can influence the Earth’s climate over regional spatial scales and long time periods (e.g., over 30 years or more), in addition to microclimates over local spatial scales and shorter time periods (weeks to months). However, the effects of flowers on climate and microclimate are unknown. We investigate whether flowers can influence light reflected by the land surface and soil microclimate in a subalpine meadow. We conducted a flower removal experiment with a common sunflower species, Helianthella quinquenervis, for 3 years (2015, 2017, and 2019). The flower removal treatment simulates the appearance of the meadow when Helianthella flowers earlier under climate change and loses its flowers to frost (other plant structures are not damaged by frost). We test the hypotheses that a reduction in cover of yellow flowers leads to a greener land surface, lower reflectance, warmer and drier soils, and increased plant water stress. Flower removal plots are greener, reflect less light, exhibit up to 1.2 °C warmer soil temperatures during the warmest daylight hours, and contain ca. 1% less soil moisture compared to controls. However, soils were warmer in only 2 of the 3 years, when flower abundance was high. Helianthella water use efficiency did not differ between removal and control plots. Our study provides evidence for a previously undocumented effect of flowers on soil microclimate, an effect that is likely mediated by climate change and flowering phenology. Many anthropogenic environmental changes alter landscape albedo, all of which could be mediated by flowers: climate change, plant invasions, and agriculture. This study highlights how further consideration of the effects of flowers on land surface albedo could improve our understanding of the effects of vegetation on microclimate.

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Data availability

Iler, Amy (2020), Effects of flowers on land surface albedo and soil microclimate, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.zcrjdfn8m.

Code availability

Iler, Amy (2020), Effects of flowers on land surface albedo and soil microclimate, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.zcrjdfn8m.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to B. Blonder, R. Kapas, and K. Williams for the use of and assistance with their spectroradiometers, to D. Inouye for sharing light data, and to B. Barr for sharing weather data from his weather station in Gothic, CO. Special thanks to A. Henderson for training on use of a field spectroradiometer and assistance with data collection. We are additionally thankful to M. Holmstrup, T. Høye, J. Harte, and the Iler-CaraDonna lab group for helpful discussions.

Funding

This work was supported by the COFUND-Marie Curie Fellowships (AIAS-COFUND program, Grant 609033) awarded to AMI and ABC, and a Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory Fellowship in memory of Dr. Navjot Sodhi and his contribution to Conservation Biology, awarded to AMI.

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AMI and ABC conceptualized and designed the research; AMI, ABC, ASW, and HS collected data, AMI analyzed the data, AMI wrote the manuscript, and all authors edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Amy M. Iler.

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Iler, A.M., Walwema, A.S., Steltzer, H. et al. Can flowers affect land surface albedo and soil microclimates?. Int J Biometeorol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-021-02159-0

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Keywords

  • Biosphere-atmosphere interactions
  • Climate change
  • Frost
  • Phenology
  • Reflectance
  • Soil moisture
  • Soil temperature