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‘Hearing’ alpine plants growing after snowmelt: ultrasonic snow sensors provide long-term series of alpine plant phenology

Abstract

In alpine environments, the growing season is severely constrained by low temperature and snow. Here, we aim at determining the climatic factors that best explain the interannual variation in spring growth onset of alpine plants, and at examining whether photoperiod might limit their phenological response during exceptionally warm springs and early snowmelts. We analysed 17 years of data (1998–2014) from 35 automatic weather stations located in subalpine and alpine zones ranging from 1560 to 2450 m asl in the Swiss Alps. These stations are equipped with ultrasonic sensors for snow depth measurements that are also able to detect plant growth in spring and summer, giving a unique opportunity to analyse snow and climate effects on alpine plant phenology. Our analysis showed high phenological variation among years, with one exceptionally early and late spring, namely 2011 and 2013. Overall, the timing of snowmelt and the beginning of plant growth were tightly linked irrespective of the elevation of the station. Snowmelt date was the best predictor of plant growth onset with air temperature after snowmelt modulating the plants’ development rate. This multiple series of alpine plant phenology suggests that currently alpine plants are directly tracking climate change with no major photoperiod limitation.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Marcel Schoch and Christoph Marty for their assistance in providing climate parameters from the IMIS weather stations and to Andreas Scharl and André Fichtner for their field assistance with the vegetation surveys at the weather stations. We thank Andreas Stoffel for drawing the map of the selected stations shown in Fig. 1. We are grateful to David Inouye for his valuable comments on the manuscript and William Doehler for his editorial improvements of the manuscript. The research leading to these results has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant number 200021-152954).

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Correspondence to Yann Vitasse.

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Vitasse, Y., Rebetez, M., Filippa, G. et al. ‘Hearing’ alpine plants growing after snowmelt: ultrasonic snow sensors provide long-term series of alpine plant phenology. Int J Biometeorol 61, 349–361 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-016-1216-x

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Keywords

  • Phenology
  • Snowmelt
  • Alpine vegetation
  • Climate warming
  • Growth onset
  • Photoperiod
  • Thermal time
  • Ultrasonic sensor