Changes in alpine plant growth under future climate conditions
Alpine shrub- and grasslands are shaped by extreme climatic conditions such as a long-lasting snow cover and a short vegetation period. Such ecosystems are expected to be highly sensitive to global environmental change. Prolonged growing seasons and shifts in temperature and precipitation are likely to affect plant phenology and growth. In a unique experiment, climatology and plant growth was monitored for almost a decade at 17 snow meteorological stations in different alpine regions along the Swiss Alps. Regression analyses revealed highly significant correlations between mean air temperature in May/June and snow melt out, onset of plant growth, and plant height. These correlations were used to project plant growth phenology for future climate conditions based on the gridded output of a set of regional climate models runs. Melt out and onset of growth were projected to occur on average 17 days earlier by the end of the century than in the control period from 1971–2000 under the future climate conditions of the low resolution climate model ensemble. Plant height and biomass production were expected to increase by 77% and 45%, respectively. The earlier melt out and onset of growth will probably cause a considerable shift towards higher growing plants and thus increased biomass. Our results represent the first quantitative and spatially explicit estimates of climate change impacts on future growing season length and the respective productivity of alpine plant communities in the Swiss Alps.