How alpine plant growth is linked to snow cover and climate variability



[1] Recent climate models predict future changes in temperature and precipitation in the Alps. To assess the potential response of alpine plant communities to climate change, we analyzed specific and combined effects of temperature, precipitation, and snow season timing on the growth of plants. This analysis is based on data from 17 snow meteorological stations and includes plant growth records from the same sites over 10 years. Using multiple regression and path analysis, we found that plant growth was primarily driven by climatic factors controlled by the timing of the snow season. Air temperature and precipitation before snow-up and after melt-out yielded the greatest direct impact on maximum plant height as well as growth rates. The variability of environmental drivers between sites versus between years had different effects on plant growth: e.g., sites with early melt-out dates hosted plant communities with tall, slow-growing vegetation. But interannual variations in melt-out dates at a given site did not produce measurable differences in plant growth performance. However, high temperatures after melt-out invariably resulted in a shortened growth period. We speculate that the plant growth patterns we observed in response to climate variation between sites are indicative of the long-term responses of alpine plant communities to persistent climate changes. With most climate models indicating shorter winters, we thus expect alpine grasslands in the Alps to display an enhanced biomass production in the future.