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Biological consequences of earlier snowmelt from desert dust deposition in alpine landscapes

  1. Heidi Steltzera,1,
  2. Chris Landryb,
  3. Thomas H. Painterc,
  4. Justin Andersond and
  5. Edward Ayresa

+Author Affiliations

  1. aNatural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1499;
  2. bCenter for Snow and Avalanche Studies, P.O. Box 190, Silverton, CO 81433-0190;
  3. cDepartment of Geography, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-9155; and
  4. dMountain Studies Institute, P.O. Box 426, Silverton, CO 81433-0426
  1. Edited by Warwick Vincent, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada, and accepted by the Editorial Board May 15, 2009 (received for review January 23, 2009)


Dust deposition to mountain snow cover, which has increased since the late 19th century, accelerates the rate of snowmelt by increasing the solar radiation absorbed by the snowpack. Snowmelt occurs earlier, but is decoupled from seasonal warming. Climate warming advances the timing of snowmelt and early season phenological events (e.g., the onset of greening and flowering); however, earlier snowmelt without warmer temperatures may have a different effect on phenology. Here, we report the results of a set of snowmelt manipulations in which radiation-absorbing fabric and the addition and removal of dust from the surface of the snowpack advanced or delayed snowmelt in the alpine tundra. These changes in the timing of snowmelt were superimposed on a system where the timing of snowmelt varies with topography and has been affected by increased dust loading. At the community level, phenology exhibited a threshold response to the timing of snowmelt. Greening and flowering were delayed before seasonal warming, after which there was a linear relationship between the date of snowmelt and the timing of phenological events. Consequently, the effects of earlier snowmelt on phenology differed in relation to topography, which resulted in increasing synchronicity in phenology across the alpine landscape with increasingly earlier snowmelt. The consequences of earlier snowmelt from increased dust deposition differ from climate warming and include delayed phenology, leading to synchronized growth and flowering across the landscape and the opportunity for altered species interactions, landscape-scale gene flow via pollination, and nutrient cycling.