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Effects of Climate Change on Phenology, Frost Damage, and Floral Abundance of Montane Wildflowers

TitleEffects of Climate Change on Phenology, Frost Damage, and Floral Abundance of Montane Wildflowers
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsInouye, D. W.
Date PublishedFEB 2008
ISBN Number0012-9658
KeywordsALPINE PLANTS, Climate change, CONTEXT, Delphinium barbeyi, Erigeron speciosus, flowering, frost, growing season, Helianthella quinquenervis, PHENOLOGY, RANUNCULACEAE, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, SNOW COVER, snowmelt, subalpine, trends, TUNDRA, variability, WESTERN UNITED-STATES

The timing of life history traits is central to lifetime fitness and nowhere is this more evident or well studied as in the phenology of flowering in governing plant reproductive success. Recent changes in the timing of environmental events attributable to climate change, such as the date of snowmelt at high altitudes, which initiates the growing season, have had important repercussions for some common perennial herbaceous wildflower species. The phenology of flowering at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (Colorado, USA) is strongly influenced by date of snowmelt, which makes this site ideal for examining phenological responses to climate change. Flower buds of Delphinium barbeyi, Erigeron speciosus, and Helianthella quinquenervis are sensitive to frost, and the earlier beginning of the growing season in recent years has exposed them to more frequent mid-June frost kills. From 1992 to 1998, on average 36.1% of Helianthella buds were frosted, but for 1999-2006 the mean is 73.9%; in only one year since 1998 have plants escaped all frost damage. For all three of these perennial species, there is a significant relationship between the date of snowmelt and the abundance of flowering that summer. Greater snowpack results in later snowmelt, later beginning of the growing season, and less frost mortality of buds. Microhabitat differences in snow accumulation, snowmelt patterns, and cold air drainage during frost events can be significant; an elevation difference of only 12 m between two plots resulted in a temperature difference of almost 2 degrees C in 2006 and a difference of 37% in frost damage to buds. The loss of flowers and therefore seeds can reduce recruitment in these plant populations, and affect pollinators, herbivores, and seed predators that previously relied on them. Other plant species in this environment are similarly susceptible to frost damage so the negative effects for recruitment and for consumers dependent on flowers and seeds could be widespread. These findings point out the paradox of increased frost damage in the face of global warming, provide important insights into the adaptive significance of phenology, and have general implications for flowering plants throughout the region and anywhere climate change is having similar impacts.

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Short TitleEffects of Climate Change on Phenology, Frost Damage, and Floral Abundance of Montane Wildflowers
Citation Key236