Extreme weather events can have strong negative impacts on species survival and community structure when surpassing lethal thresholds. Extreme, short-lived, winter warming events in the Arctic rapidly melt snow and expose ecosystems to unseasonably warm air (for instance, 2–10 °C for 2–14 days) but upon return to normal winter climate exposes the ecosystem to much colder temperatures due to the loss of insulating snow. Single events have been shown to reduce plant reproduction and increase shoot mortality, but impacts of multiple events are little understood as are the broader impacts on community structure, growth, carbon balance, and nutrient cycling. To address these issues, we simulated week-long extreme winter warming events – using infrared heating lamps and soil warming cables – for 3 consecutive years in a sub-Arctic heathland dominated by the dwarf shrubs Empetrum hermaphroditum, Vaccinium vitis-idaea (both evergreen) and Vaccinium myrtillus (deciduous). During the growing seasons after the second and third winter event, spring bud burst was delayed by up to a week for E. hermaphroditum and V. myrtillus, and berry production reduced by 11–75% and 52–95% for E. hermaphroditum and V. myrtillus, respectively. Greater shoot mortality occurred in E. hermaphroditum (up to 52%), V. vitis-idaea (51%), and V. myrtillus (80%). Root growth was reduced by more than 25% but soil nutrient availability remained unaffected. Gross primary productivity was reduced by more than 50% in the summer following the third simulation. Overall, the extent of damage was considerable, and critically plant responses were opposite in direction to the increased growth seen in long-term summer warming simulations and the ‘greening’ seen for some arctic regions. Given the Arctic is warming more in winter than summer, and extreme events are predicted to become more frequent, this generates large uncertainty in our current understanding of arctic ecosystem responses to climate change.
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