Can soil temperature direct the composition of high arctic plant communities?


Corresponding author; Fax +441330823303; E-mail


Abstract. Low temperatures exert a primary constraint on the growth of high arctic vascular plants. However, investigations into the impact of temperature on high arctic plants rarely separate out the role of air and soil temperatures, and few data exist to indicate whether soil temperatures alone can significantly influence the growth of high arctic vascular plants in a manner that might direct community composition.

We examined the response of high arctic plants of three functional types (grasses, sedges/rushes and non-graminoids) to manipulated soil temperature under common air temperature conditions. Target plants, within intact soil cores, were placed in water baths at a range of temperatures between 4.9 and 15.3 °C for one growing season. Grasses responded most rapidly to increased soil temperature, with increased total live plant mass, above-ground live mass and total below-ground live mass, with non-graminoids having the lowest, and sedges/rushes an intermediate degree of response. The ratio of above-ground live mass to total live mass increased in all growth forms. Grasses, in particular, responded to enhanced soil temperatures by increasing shoot size rather than shoot number. In all growth forms the mass of root tissue beneath the moss layer increased significantly and to a similar extent with increasing soil temperature.

These results clearly indicate that different growth forms, although collected from the same plant community, respond differently to changes in soil temperature. As a consequence, factors influencing soil temperature in high arctic ecosystems, such as global climate change or herbivory (which leads to reduced moss depth and increased soil temperatures), may also direct changes in vascular plant community composition.