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Evidence of enhanced freezing damage in treeline plants during six years of CO2 enrichment and soil warming


C. Rixen, WSL Inst. for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Flüelastrasse 11, CH–7260 Davos, Switzerland. E-mail:


Climate change and elevated atmospheric CO2 levels could increase the vulnerability of plants to freezing. We analyzed tissue damage resulting from naturally occurring freezing events in plants from a long–term in situ CO2 enrichment (+ 200 ppm, 2001–2009) and soil warming (+ 4°C since 2007) experiment at treeline in the Swiss Alps (Stillberg, Davos). Summer freezing events caused damage in several abundant subalpine and alpine plant species in four out of six years between 2005 and 2010. Most freezing damage occurred when temperatures dropped below –1.5°C two to three weeks after snow melt. The tree Larix decidua and the dwarf shrubs Vaccinium myrtillus and Empetrum hermaphroditum showed more freezing damage under experimentally elevated CO2 and/or temperatures than under control conditions. Soil warming induced a 50% die-back of E. hermaphroditum during a single freezing event due to melting of the protective snow cover. Although we could not identify a clear mechanism, we relate greater freezing susceptibility to a combination of advanced plant phenology in spring and changes in plant physiology. The climate record since 1975 at the treeline site indicated a summer warming by 0.58°C/decade and a 3.5 days/decade earlier snow melt, but no significant decrease in freezing events during the vegetation period. Therefore, in a warmer climate with higher CO2 levels but constant likelihood of extreme weather events, subalpine and alpine plants may be more susceptible to freezing events, which may partially offset expected enhanced growth with global change. Hence, freezing damage should be considered when predicting changes in growth of alpine plants or changes in community composition under future atmospheric and climate conditions.