Coupled long-term summer warming and deeper snow alters species composition and stimulates gross primary productivity in tussock tundra

Oecologia. 2016 May;181(1):287-97. doi: 10.1007/s00442-015-3543-8. Epub 2016 Jan 8.


Climate change is expected to increase summer temperature and winter precipitation throughout the Arctic. The long-term implications of these changes for plant species composition, plant function, and ecosystem processes are difficult to predict. We report on the influence of enhanced snow depth and warmer summer temperature following 20 years of an ITEX experimental manipulation at Toolik Lake, Alaska. Winter snow depth was increased using snow fences and warming was accomplished during summer using passive open-top chambers. One of the most important consequences of these experimental treatments was an increase in active layer depth and rate of thaw, which has led to deeper drainage and lower soil moisture content. Vegetation concomitantly shifted from a relatively wet system with high cover of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum to a drier system, dominated by deciduous shrubs including Betula nana and Salix pulchra. At the individual plant level, we observed higher leaf nitrogen concentration associated with warmer temperatures and increased snow in S. pulchra and B. nana, but high leaf nitrogen concentration did not lead to higher rates of net photosynthesis. At the ecosystem level, we observed higher GPP and NEE in response to summer warming. Our results suggest that deeper snow has a cascading set of biophysical consequences that include a deeper active layer that leads to altered species composition, greater leaf nitrogen concentration, and higher ecosystem-level carbon uptake.

Keywords: Arctic; Carbon flux; Climate change; Precipitation; Temperature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alaska
  • Betula / metabolism*
  • Biodiversity*
  • Carbon Cycle*
  • Climate Change*
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Salix / metabolism*
  • Seasons
  • Snow
  • Tundra*


  • Nitrogen