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Soil moisture mediates alpine life form and community productivity responses to warming

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Climate change is expected to alter primary production and community composition in alpine ecosystems, but the direction and magnitude of change is debated. Warmer, wetter growing seasons may increase productivity; however, in the absence of additional precipitation, increased temperatures may decrease soil moisture, thereby diminishing any positive effect of warming. Since plant species show individual responses to environmental change, responses may depend on community composition and vary across life form or functional groups. We warmed an alpine plant community at Niwot Ridge, Colorado continuously for four years to test whether warming increases or decreases productivity of life form groups and the whole community. We provided supplemental water to a subset of plots to alleviate the drying effect of warming. We measured annual above-ground productivity and soil temperature and moisture, from which we calculated soil degree days and adequate soil moisture days. Using an information-theoretic approach, we observed that positive productivity responses to warming at the community level occur only when warming is combined with supplemental watering; otherwise we observed decreased productivity. Watering also increased community productivity in the absence of warming. Forbs accounted for the majority of the productivity at the site and drove the contingent community response to warming, while cushions drove the generally positive response to watering and graminoids muted the community response. Warming advanced snowmelt and increased soil degree days, while watering increased adequate soil moisture days. Heated and watered plots had more adequate soil moisture days than heated plots. Overall, measured changes in soil temperature and moisture in response to treatments were consistent with expected productivity responses. We found that available soil moisture largely determines the responses of this forb-dominated alpine community to simulated climate warming.

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