Subalpine ecosystems are experiencing rapid changes in snow pack, temperature, and precipitation regime as a result of anthropogenic climate forcing. These changes in climate can have a profound effect on subalpine ecosystem structure and functioning, which may ultimately feed back to climate change. In this study, I examined the response of the subalpine meadow plant communities at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory to natural and simulated climate change. First, I looked at whether changes in growing season precipitation or temperature regime would have the larger effect on subalpine ecosystem carbon flux. In a simulated warming experiment, changes in growing season precipitation had a tenfold larger effect on cumulative carbon flux than did the warming treatment. Along a natural climatic and elevational gradient, precipitation stimulates carbon uptake, particularly at higher elevations. Given projected decreases in summer precipitation in the high elevation Rockies, we predict a 20% decrease in carbon uptake from subalpine meadows. Second, I compared the taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional structure of plant communities along an elevational gradient to infer which climatic and biotic factors influence community assembly at each elevation. Floral and phenology traits become overdispersed at high elevation, mirroring phylogenetic relatedness, and suggesting pressure to diversify to attract pollinators during the abbreviated growing season. At the same time, leaf functional traits become clustered at high elevation, indicating multiple opposing assembly mechanisms in subalpine communities. Finally, I studied the natural history of sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana, at its elevational range limit in subalpine meadows. In particular, I focused on the importance of warming and species interactions in elevational advance of the species. I found that facilitation by neighboring forbs was critical for sagebrush seedling survival, decreasing mortality by 75%. Seedling mortality was overwhelmingly due to desiccation of seedlings; therefore, neighboring forbs moderate temperature and water stress for seedlings. Despite the extremely limited growing season at high elevation caused by subfreezing temperatures, subalpine ecosystem structure and function are closely tied to water availability during the growing season. Therefore, improved predictions of future precipitation regimes over the Rocky Mountains will be our best tool for conservation of these fragile habitats.
|Advisor:||Enquist, Brian J.|
|Commitee:||Archer, Steve, Bronstein, Judith L., Kueppers, Lara, Saleska, Scott R.|
|School:||The University of Arizona|
|Department:||Ecology & Evolutionary Biology|
|School Location:||United States -- Arizona|
|Source:||DAI-B 73/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International|
|Subjects:||Ecology, Climate Change|
|Keywords:||Elevational gradient, Functional diversity, Nee, Phylogenetic diversity, Sagebrush, Subalpine|
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