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Divergent community trajectories with climate change across a fine-scale gradient in snow depth

November 22, 2023
  1. Fine-scale microclimate variation due to complex topography can shape both current vegetation distributional patterns and how vegetation responds to changing climate. Topographic heterogeneity in mountains is hypothesized to mediate responses to regional climate change at the scale of metres. For alpine vegetation especially, the interplay between changing temperatures and topographically mediated variation in snow accumulation will determine the overall impact of climate change on vegetation dynamics.
  2. We combined 30 years of co-located measurements of temperature, snow and alpine plant community composition in Colorado, USA, to investigate vegetation community trajectories across a snow depth gradient.
  3. Our analysis of long-term trends in plant community composition revealed notable directional change in the alpine vegetation with warming temperatures. Furthermore, community trajectories are divergent across the snow depth gradient, with exposed parts of the landscape that experience little snow accumulation shifting towards stress-tolerant, cold- and drought-adapted communities, while snowier areas shifted towards more warm-adapted communities.
  4. Synthesis: Our findings demonstrate that fine-scale topography can mediate both the magnitude and direction of vegetation responses to climate change. We documented notable shifts in plant community composition over a 30-year period even though alpine vegetation is known for slow dynamics that often lag behind environmental change. These results suggest that the processes driving alpine plant population and community dynamics at this site are strong and highly heterogeneous across the complex topography that is characteristic of high-elevation mountain systems.
Publication Year 2024
Title Divergent community trajectories with climate change across a fine-scale gradient in snow depth
DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.14223
Authors Meagan Ford Oldfather, Sarah C. Elmendorf, Elisa Van Cleemput, Jonathan J. Henn, Jared D. Huxley, Caitlin T. White, Hope C. Humphries, Marko J. Spasojevic, Katharine N. Suding, Nancy C. Emery
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Ecology
Index ID 70250188
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center