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Unchanged risk of frost exposure for subalpine and alpine plants after snowmelt in Switzerland despite climate warming

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Abstract

The length of the snow-free season is a key factor regulating plant phenology and shaping plant community composition in cold regions. While global warming has significantly advanced the time of snowmelt and the growth period at all elevations in the Swiss Alps, it remains unclear if it has altered the likelihood of frost risk for alpine plants. Here, we analyzed the influence of the snowmelt timing on the risk of frost exposure for subalpine and alpine plants shortly after snowmelt, i.e., during their most vulnerable period to frost at the beginning of their growth period. Furthermore, we tested whether recent climate warming has changed the risk of exposure of plants to frost after snowmelt. We analyzed snow and air temperature data in the Swiss Alps using six weather stations covering the period 1970–2016 and 77 weather stations covering the period 1998–2016, spanning elevations from 1418 to 2950 m asl. When analyzed across all years within each station, our results showed strong negative relationships between the time of snowmelt and the frequency and intensity of frost during the most vulnerable period to frost for subalpine and alpine plants, indicating a higher frost risk damage for plants during years with earlier snowmelt. However, over the last 46 years, the time of snowmelt and the last spring frost date have advanced at similar rates, so that the frequency and intensity of frost during the vulnerable period for plants remained unchanged.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Christoph Marty for providing IMIS temperature and snow data and to MeteoSwiss for providing long-term series of temperature and snow data. We also thank Flurin Sutter for drawing the map of the selected stations shown in Fig. 1 and Bradley Carlson for his editorial improvements of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey Klein.

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Klein, G., Rebetez, M., Rixen, C. et al. Unchanged risk of frost exposure for subalpine and alpine plants after snowmelt in Switzerland despite climate warming. Int J Biometeorol 62, 1755–1762 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-018-1578-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-018-1578-3

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