Early Spring, Severe Frost Events, and Drought Induce Rapid Carbon Loss in High Elevation Meadows
Arnold, Chelsea and Ghezzehei, Teamrat A. and Berhe, Asmeret Asefaw
PLoS ONE, vol. 9(9), pp. e106058 , 2014.
By the end of the 20th century, the onset of spring in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California has been occurring on average three weeks earlier than historic records. Superimposed on this trend is an increase in the presence of highly anomalous “extreme” years, where spring arrives either significantly late or early. The timing of the onset of continuous snowpack coupled to the date at which the snowmelt season is initiated play an important role in the development and sustainability of mountain ecosystems. In this study, we assess the impact of extreme winter precipitation variation on aboveground net primary productivity and soil respiration over three years (2011 to 2013). We found that the duration of snow cover, particularly the timing of the onset of a continuous snowpack and presence of early spring frost events contributed to a dramatic change in ecosystem processes. We found an average 100% increase in soil respiration in 2012 and 2103, compared to 2011, and an average 39% decline in aboveground net primary productivity observed over the same time period. The overall growing season length increased by 57 days in 2012 and 61 days in 2013. These results demonstrate the dependency of these keystone ecosystems on a stable climate and indicate that even small changes in climate can potentially alter their resiliency.