Impacts of long-term snow climate change on a high-elevation cold desert shrubland, California, USA

Abstract

Ecological responses to 50-year old manipulations of snow depth and melt timing were assessed using snow fences arrayed across 50 km of a shrub–conifer landscape mosaic in eastern California, USA. We compared how increased, decreased, and ambient snow depth affected patterns of vegetation community composition, fire fuel accumulation, and annual tree ring growth. We also tested the effect of snow depth on soil carbon storage based on total C content under the two co-dominant shrub species (Artemisia tridentata and Purshia tridentata) in comparison with open, intershrub sites. Increased snow depth reduced the cover of the N-fixing shrub P. tridentata but not the water-redistributing shrub A. tridentata. Annual ring growth was greater on +snow plots and lower on −snow plots for the conifer Pinus jeffreyi but not for Pinus contorta. Graminoid cover and aboveground biomass indicated higher fire fuel accumulation where snow depth was increased. Dead shrub stem biomass was greater regardless of whether snow depth was increased or decreased. Results demonstrate community shifts, altered tree growth, feedbacks on carbon storage, and altered fire fuel accumulation as a result of changes in snow depth and melt timing for this high-elevation, snow-dominated ecotone under future climate scenarios that envision increased or decreased snow depth.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Hally Andersen, Amy Concilio, Alex Gershenson, Ian Gillespie, Lisa Patrick, and David Tissue. The UC Valentine Eastern Sierra UC Natural Reserve provided logistical support. Permission to access snow fence sites was granted by Caltrans, and the Inyo National Forest (US Forest Service). Funding was provided by Earthwatch, The M. Theo Kearney Foundation for Soil Science, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. This research was also supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science (BER) through the Western Regional Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Northern Arizona University.

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Loik, M.E., Griffith, A.B. & Alpert, H. Impacts of long-term snow climate change on a high-elevation cold desert shrubland, California, USA. Plant Ecol 214, 255–266 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-012-0164-8

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Keywords

  • Artemisia tridentata
  • Soil water
  • Pinus contorta
  • Pinus jeffreyi
  • Purshia tridentata