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Impacts of winter icing events on the growth, phenology and physiology of sub-arctic dwarf shrubs


Corresponding author,


The Arctic is experiencing the greatest climate change in winter, including increases in freeze–thaw cycles that can result in ice encasement of vegetation. Ice encasement can expose plants to hypoxia and greater temperature extremes, but currently the impacts of icing on plants in the field remain little understood. With this in mind, a unique field manipulation experiment was established in heathland in northern Sweden with ice encasement simulated in early March 2008, 2009 and 2010 until natural thaw each spring. In the following summers we assessed the impacts on flowering, bud phenology, shoot growth and mortality and leaf damage (measured by chlorophyll fluorescence and electrolyte leakage) of the three dominant dwarf shrub species Empetrum nigrum, Vaccinium vitis-idaea (both evergreen) and Vaccinium myrtillus (deciduous). Two consecutive winters of icing decreased V. vitis-idaea flowering by 57%, while flowering of V. myrtillus and E. nigrum remained unaffected. Vaccinium myrtillus showed earlier budburst but shoot growth for all species was unchanged. Shoot mortality of V. myrtillus and V. vitis-idaea increased after the first year (by 70 and 165%, respectively) and again for V. myrtillus following the third year (by 67%), while E. nigrum shoot mortality remained unaffected, as were chlorophyll fluorescence and electrolyte leakage in all species. Overall, the sub-arctic heathland was relatively tolerant to icing, but the considerable shoot mortality of V. myrtillus contrasting with the general tolerance of E. nigrum suggests plant community structure in the longer term could change if winters continue to see a greater frequency of icing events.