Contrasting effects of warming and increased snowfall on Arctic tundra plant phenology over the past two decades

anne.bjorkman [ at ]


Recent changes in climate have led to significant shifts in phenology, with many studies demonstrating advanced phenology in response to warming temperatures. The rate of temperature change is especially high in the Arctic, but this is also where we have relatively little data on phenological changes and the processes driving these changes. In order to understand how Arctic plant species are likely to respond to future changes in climate, we monitored flowering phenology in response to both experimental and ambient warming for four widespread species in two habitat types over 21 years. We additionally used long-term environmental records to disentangle the effects of temperature increase and changes in snowmelt date on phenological patterns. While flowering occurred earlier in response to experimental warming, plants in unmanipulated plots showed no change or a delay in flowering over the 21-year period, despite more than 1 °C of ambient warming during that time. This counterintuitive result was likely due to significantly delayed snowmelt over the study period (0.05–0.2 days/yr) due to increased winter snowfall. The timing of snowmelt was a strong driver of flowering phenology for all species – especially for early-flowering species – while spring temperature was significantly related to flowering time only for later-flowering species. Despite significantly delayed flowering phenology, the timing of seed maturation showed no significant change over time, suggesting that warmer temperatures may promote more rapid seed development. The results of this study highlight the importance of understanding the specific environmental cues that drive species’ phenological responses as well as the complex interactions between temperature and precipitation when forecasting phenology over the coming decades. As demonstrated here, the effects of altered snowmelt patterns can counter the effects of warmer temperatures, even to the point of generating phenological responses opposite to those predicted by warming alone.

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DOI 10.1111/gcb.13051

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Bjorkman, A. D. , Elmendorf, S. C. , Beamish, A. L. , Vellend, M. and Henry, G. H. R. (2015): Contrasting effects of warming and increased snowfall on Arctic tundra plant phenology over the past two decades , Global Change Biology, 21 (12), pp. 4651-4661 . doi: 10.1111/gcb.13051

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