Boreal peatlands may be particularly vulnerable to climate change, because temperature regimes that currently constrain biological activity in these regions are predicted to increase substantially within the next century. Changes in peatland plant community composition in response to climate change may alter nutrient availability, energy budgets, trace gas fluxes, and carbon storage. We investigated plant community response to warming and drying in a field mesocosm experiment in northern Minnesota, USA. Large intact soil monoliths removed from a bog and a fen received three infrared warming treatments crossed with three water-table treatments (n = 3) for five years. Foliar cover of each species was estimated annually.
In the bog, increases in soil temperature and decreases in water-table elevation increased cover of shrubs by 50% and decreased cover of graminoids by 50%. The response of shrubs to warming was distinctly species-specific, and ranged from increases (for Andromeda glaucophylla) to decreases (for Kalmia polifolia). In the fens, changes in plant cover were driven primarily by changes in water-table elevation, and responses were species- and lifeform-specific: increases in water-table elevation increased cover of graminoids – in particular Carex lasiocarpa and Carex livida– as well as mosses. In contrast, decreases in water-table elevation increased cover of shrubs, in particular A. glaucophylla and Chamaedaphne calyculata. The differential and sometimes opposite response of species and lifeforms to the treatments suggest that the structure and function of both bog and fen plant communities will change – in different directions or at different magnitudes – in response to warming and/or changes in water-table elevation that may accompany regional or global climate change.