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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • community change;
  • diversity;
  • microclimate;
  • phenology;
  • subarctic tundra

Abstract

Facing an increased threat of rapid climate change in cold-climate regions, it is important to understand the sensitivity of plant communities both in terms of degree and direction of community change. We studied responses to 3–5 years of moderate experimental warming by open-top chambers in two widespread but contrasting tundra communities in Iceland. In a species-poor and nutrient-deficient moss heath, dominated by Racomitrium lanuginosum, mean daily air temperatures at surface were 1–2°C higher in the warmed plots than the controls whereas soil temperatures tended to be lower in the warmed plots throughout the season. In a species-rich dwarf shrub heath on relatively rich soils at a cooler site, dominated by Betula nana and R. lanuginosum, temperature changes were in the same direction although more moderate. In the moss heath, there were no detectable community changes while significant changes were detected in the dwarf shrub heath: the abundance of deciduous and evergreen dwarf shrubs significantly increased (>50%), bryophytes decreased (18%) and canopy height increased (100%). Contrary to some other studies of tundra communities, we detected no changes in species richness or other diversity measures in either community and the abundance of lichens did not change. It is concluded that the sensitivity of Icelandic tundra communities to climate warming varies greatly depending on initial conditions in terms of species diversity, dominant species, soil and climatic conditions as well as land-use history.