Water uptake of Alaskan tundra evergreens during the winter-spring transition

Am J Bot. 2016 Feb;103(2):298-306. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1500358. Epub 2016 Jan 28.


Premise of the study: The cold season in the Arctic extends over 8 to 9 mo, yet little is known about vascular plant physiology during this period. Evergreen species photosynthesize under the snow, implying that they are exchanging water with the atmosphere. However, liquid water available for plant uptake may be limited at this time. The study objective was to determine whether evergreen plants are actively taking up water while under snow and/or immediately following snowmelt during spring thaw.

Methods: In two in situ experiments, one at the plot level and another at the individual species level, (2)H-labeled water was used as a tracer injected beneath the snow, after which plant stems and leaves were tested for the presence of the label. In separate experiments, excised shoots of evergreen species were exposed to (2)H-labeled water for ∼5 s or 60 min and tested for foliar uptake of the label.

Key results: In both the plot-level and the species-level experiments, some (2)H-labeled water was found in leaves and stems. Additionally, excised individual plant shoots exposed to labeled water for 60 min took up significantly more (2)H-label than shoots exposed ∼5 s.

Conclusions: Evergreen tundra plants take up water under snow cover, some via roots, but also likely by foliar uptake. The ability to take up water in the subnivean environment allows evergreen tundra plants to take advantage of mild spring conditions under the snow and replenish carbon lost by winter respiration.

Keywords: Toolik Field Station; cold season; deuterium; evergreen; frozen soil; permafrost; snow cover; stable isotope; tundra; water uptake.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Magnoliopsida / metabolism*
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Plant Roots / metabolism
  • Seasons
  • Snow
  • Temperature
  • Tundra*
  • Water / metabolism*


  • Water