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Keywords:

  • Arctic and alpine ecosystems;
  • snow cover change;
  • snow manipulation experiment;
  • Vaccinium myrtillus;
  • xylem growth rings

Abstract

Snow cover strongly influences plant growth in Arctic and alpine ecosystems. Snow characteristics and snowmelt timing are likely to change in a warmer climate. We studied year rings and shoot growth of the dwarf shrub bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), and species abundances of the vegetation, in response to early or late snowmelt at a study site in the Central Alps, near Davos, Switzerland. Snowmelt was manipulated on experimental plots for 3 and 30 years. Additional plots were set up along a natural snowmelt gradient, and at high and low elevation. Growth ring data showed an increasing trend in annual growth increment over the last 20 years, especially in the extraordinarily hot summer of 2003. Comparing high and low elevation sites, growth rings were wider at low elevation, but only in cold years. In years with relatively cold summers, however, xylem ring width was greater in plots with late rather than early snowmelt along the natural snowmelt gradient, possibly indicating drought stress in early snowmelt plots. Snow cover had a strong influence on species abundances along the natural snowmelt gradient, and change (not yet significant) was beginning to be seen in plots with 30 years of snow manipulation. Our results indicate that beneficial effects of early snowmelt for shrub growth may be offset in cold summers. Although early snowmelt prolongs the growing season, harsh conditions and frost events early in the growing season may become more likely, and hamper plant growth, and this could affect plant growth in all Arctic and alpine snow-dominated ecosystems.