Vascular plant changes in extreme environments: effects of multiple drivers
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of three regions of the planet that have experienced the highest rates of climate warming over recent decades. Based on a comprehensive large-scale resurvey, allowing comparison of new (2009) and historical data (1960s), we show that the two native Antarctic vascular plant species have exhibited significant increases in number of occupied sites and percent cover since the 1960s: Deschampsia antarctica increasing in coverage by 191 % and in number of sites by 104 %. Colobanthus quitensis increasing in coverage by 208 % and number of sites by 35 %. These changes likely occurred in response to increases of 1.2 °C in summer air temperature over the same time period. Both species exhibited changes with elevation due to the interaction of multiple drivers (climatic factors and animal disturbance), producing heterogeneity of responses across an elevation gradient. Below an elevation of 20 m fur seal activity exerted negative impacts. Between 20 and 60 m, both plant species underwent considerable increases in the number of sites and percent cover, likely influenced by both climate warming and nutrient input from seals. Above an elevation threshold of 60 m the maximum elevation of the sites occupied decreased for both species, perhaps as a consequence of physical disturbance at higher elevations due to the permafrost conditions and/or the snow cover thickness and persistence. Understanding the role of disturbance drivers for vegetation change in cold regions may become a research priority to enable improved forecasting of biological responses and feedbacks of climate warming on ecosystems in these globally influential regions.