PRS Publications

Taller and larger: shifts in Arctic tundra leaf traits after 16 years of experimental warming

Hudson, J.M.G., G.H.R. Henry, and W.K. Cornwell. 2011. Global Change Biology 17:1013-1021


Understanding plant trait responses to elevated temperatures in the Arctic is critical in light of recent and continuing climate change, especially because these traits act as key mechanisms in climate-vegetation feedbacks. Since 1992, we have artificially warmed three plant communities at Alexandra Fiord, Nunavut, Canada (79°N). In each of the communities, we used open-top chambers (OTCs) to passively warm vegetation by 1-2 °C. In the summer of 2008, we investigated the intraspecific trait responses of five key species to 16 years of continuous warming. We examined eight traits that quantify different aspects of plant performance: leaf size, specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), plant height, leaf carbon concentration, leaf nitrogen concentration, leaf carbon isotope discrimination (LCID), and leaf δ15N. Long-term artificial warming affected five traits, including at least one trait in every species studied. The evergreen shrub Cassiope tetragona responded most frequently (increased leaf size and plant height/decreased SLA, leaf carbon concentration, and LCID), followed by the deciduous shrub Salix arctica (increased leaf size and plant height/decreased SLA) and the evergreen shrub Dryas integrifolia (increased leaf size and plant height/decreased LCID), the forb Oxyria digyna (increased leaf size and plant height), and the sedge Eriophorum angustifolium spp. triste (decreased leaf carbon concentration). Warming did not affect δ15N, leaf nitrogen concentration, or LDMC. Overall, growth traits were more sensitive to warming than leaf chemistry traits. Notably, we found that responses to warming were sustained, even after many years of treatment. Our work suggests that tundra plants in the High Arctic will show a multifaceted response to warming, often including taller shoots with larger leaves.

Key Words

artificial warming; climate change; functional traits; International Tundra Experiment; ITEX; open-top chamber; passive warming; tundra