The International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) was established in late 1990 at a meeting of arctic tundra ecologists as a response to predictions that the human-enhanced greenhouse warming would occur earliest and most intensely at high latitudes. The initial objective of ITEX was to monitor phenology, growth and reproduction in major circumpolar vascular plant species in response to climate variations and environmental manipulations at sites throughout the tundra biome. The manipulations involve passive warming of tundra plots in open-top chambers (OTCs), and manipulating snow depth to alter growing season length. Standard protocols were developed for measurements, experimental design and statistical analyses, and published in an ITEX Manual. The standard methods ensure comparable data are collected at all sites. This special issue of Global Change Biology is based on papers developed from the 6th ITEX Workshop, held at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada, 7–11 April 1995. The papers compare short-term responses (1–3 years) of common species to climate variations and manipulations at ITEX sites. The OTCs increase mean near-surface temperatures by 1–3°C during the growing season, simulating predictions from global circulation models. All species investigated responded to the temperature increase, especially in phenology and reproductive variables. However, these short-term responses were individualistic, and no general pattern in type or magnitude of response was noted for functional types or phenology class. Responses were generally similar among sites, although the magnitude of response tended to be greater in high Arctic sites. Early snowmelt increased carbon:nutrient ratios in plants. Sustained growth and reproductive responses to warming will depend on nutrient supply, and increased carbon:nutrient ratios in litter could buffer nutrient cycling, and hence plant growth. Ongoing, long-term research at ITEX sites, linked to other global change initiatives, will help elucidate probable effects of climate change at the ecosystems level in arctic and alpine tundra.