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Keywords:

  • Cassiope tetragona ;
  • climate change;
  • Dryas octopetala ;
  • extreme event;
  • growing season;
  • mild periods;
  • reproductive effort;
  • snow depth;
  • snow fence;
  • Spitsbergen

Abstract

The High Arctic winter is expected to be altered through ongoing and future climate change. Winter precipitation and snow depth are projected to increase and melt out dates change accordingly. Also, snow cover and depth will play an important role in protecting plant canopy from increasingly more frequent extreme winter warming events. Flower production of many Arctic plants is dependent on melt out timing, since season length determines resource availability for flower preformation. We erected snow fences to increase snow depth and shorten growing season, and counted flowers of six species over 5 years, during which we experienced two extreme winter warming events. Most species were resistant to snow cover increase, but two species reduced flower abundance due to shortened growing seasons. Cassiope tetragona responded strongly with fewer flowers in deep snow regimes during years without extreme events, while Stellaria crassipes responded partly. Snow pack thickness determined whether winter warming events had an effect on flower abundance of some species. Warming events clearly reduced flower abundance in shallow but not in deep snow regimes of Cassiope tetragona, but only marginally for Dryas octopetala. However, the affected species were resilient and individuals did not experience any long term effects. In the case of short or cold summers, a subset of species suffered reduced reproductive success, which may affect future plant composition through possible cascading competition effects. Extreme winter warming events were shown to expose the canopy to cold winter air. The following summer most of the overwintering flower buds could not produce flowers. Thus reproductive success is reduced if this occurs in subsequent years. We conclude that snow depth influences flower abundance by altering season length and by protecting or exposing flower buds to cold winter air, but most species studied are resistant to changes.