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Impacts of extreme winter warming in the sub-Arctic: growing season responses of dwarf shrub heathland


S. Bokhorst, tel. +44 114 2220073, fax +44 114 2220002, e-mail:


Climate change scenarios predict an increased frequency of extreme climatic events. In Arctic regions, one of the most profound of these are extreme and sudden winter warming events in which temperatures increase rapidly to above freezing, often causing snow melt across whole landscapes and exposure of ecosystems to warm temperatures. Following warming, vegetation and soils no longer insulated below snow are then exposed to rapidly returning extreme cold. Using a new experimental facility established in sub-Arctic dwarf shrub heathland in northern Sweden, we simulated an extreme winter warming event in the field and report findings on growth, phenology and reproduction during the subsequent growing season. A 1-week long extreme winter warming event was simulated in early March using infrared heating lamps run with or without soil warming cables. Both single short events delayed bud development of Vaccinium myrtillus by up to 3 weeks in the following spring (June) and reduced flower production by more than 80%: this also led to a near-complete elimination of berry production in mid-summer. Empetrum hermaphroditum also showed delayed bud development. In contrast, Vaccinium vitis-idaea showed no delay in bud development, but instead appeared to produce a greater number of actively growing vegetative buds within plots warmed by heating lamps only. Again, there was evidence of reduced flowering and berry production in this species. While bud break was delayed, growing season measurements of growth and photosynthesis did not reveal a differential response in the warmed plants for any of the species. These results demonstrate that a single, short, extreme winter warming event can have considerable impact on bud production, phenology and reproductive effort of dominant plant species within sub-Arctic dwarf shrub heathland. Furthermore, large interspecific differences in sensitivity are seen. These findings are of considerable concern, because they suggest that repeated events may potentially impact on the biodiversity and productivity of these systems should these extreme events increase in frequency as a result of global change. Although climate change may lengthen the growing season by earlier spring snow melt, there is a profound danger for these high-latitude ecosystems if extreme, short-lived warming in winter exposes plants to initial warm temperatures, but then extreme cold for the rest of the winter. Work is ongoing to determine the longer term and wider impacts of these events.