Antarctic fellfield response to climate change: a tripartite synthesis of experimental data
This paper explores the biological consequences of climate change by integrating the results of a tripartite investigation involving fumarole, field manipulation and laboratory incubation experiments. The geographical region for this research is the maritime Antarctic. Under contemporary climate conditions, the lithosols in this region support only a sparse cryptogamic flora of limited taxonomic diversity and low structural complexity. However, the existence in geothermal areas of temperate species (e.g. Campylopus introflexus, Marchantia polymorpha, Philonotis acicularis) growing outside their normal biogeographical range suggests that elevated temperature and humidity may alter the trajectory of community development towards Magellanic or Patagonian composition. Productivity is also likely to increase, as indicated by significantly greater vegetative biomass recorded beneath climate-ameliorating soil covers than in controls. Barren fellfield soil samples transplanted to the laboratory and incubated at temperatures of 2–25°C show rapid development of moss, algae and lichen propagules in the range 15–25°C. A variety of species develop that have not been recorded in the field. The presence of exotic taxa indicates the existence of a dormant propagule bank in maritime Antarctic soils and suggests that no significant delay is likely to occur between the onset of climate warming and community development: instead, rapid establishment of those species favoured by the new climate conditions will yield a distinct founder effect, with increasing above- and below-ground biomass stimulating biogeochemical cycling. It is argued that the combined results of this synthesis identify generic responses to climate change arising from the importance at high latitudes of low temperature and water availability as limiting factors: subject to other growth resources being non-limiting, a more consistent stimulatory response to climate change may be expected than in temperate or tropical regions. The tripartite approach, encompassing field, microcosm and laboratory methodologies, renders the conclusions more robust than any single study considered in isolation.