Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Warming of alpine tundra enhances belowground production and shifts community towards resource acquisition traits

October 20, 2020

Climate warming is expected to stimulate plant growth in high‐elevation and high‐latitude ecosystems, significantly increasing aboveground net primary production (ANPP). However, the effects of simultaneous changes in temperature, snowmelt timing, and summer water availability on total net primary production (NPP)—and elucidation of both above‐ and belowground responses—remain an important area in need of further study. In particular, measures of belowground net primary productivity (BNPP) are required to understand whether ANPP changes reflect changes in allocation or are indicative of a whole plant NPP response. Further, plant functional traits provide a key way to scale from the individual plant to the community level and provide insight into drivers of NPP responses to environmental change. We used infrared heaters to warm an alpine plant community at Niwot Ridge, Colorado, and applied supplemental water to compensate for soil water loss induced by warming. We measured ANPP, BNPP, and leaf and root functional traits across treatments after 5 yr of continuous warming. Community‐level ANPP and total NPP (ANPP + BNPP) did not respond to heating or watering, but BNPP increased in response to heating. Heating decreased community‐level leaf dry matter content and increased total root length, indicating a shift in strategy from resource conservation to acquisition in response to warming. Water use efficiency (WUE) decreased with heating, suggesting alleviation of moisture constraints that may have enabled the plant community to increase productivity. Heating may have decreased WUE by melting snow earlier and creating more days early in the growing season with adequate soil moisture, but stimulated dry mass investment in roots as soils dried down later in the growing season. Overall, this study highlights how ANPP and BNPP responses to climate change can diverge, and encourages a closer examination of belowground processes, especially in alpine systems, where the majority of NPP occurs belowground.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Warming of alpine tundra enhances belowground production and shifts community towards resource acquisition traits
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3270
Authors Yan Yang, Julia A. Klein, Daniel E. Winkler, Ahui Peng, Brynne E. Lazarus, Matthew Germino, Katherine Suding, Jane G. Smith, Lara M. Kueppers
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Series Number
Index ID 70216551
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center