Experiment, monitoring, and gradient methods used to infer climate change effects on plant communities yield consistent patterns

Sarah C. Elmendorf, Gregory H. R. Henry, Robert D. Hollister, Anna Maria Fosaa, William A. Gould, Luise Hermanutz, Annika Hofgaard, Ingibjörg I Jónsdóttir, Janet C. Jorgenson, Esther Lévesque, Borgþór Magnusson, Ulf Molau, Isla H. Myers-Smith, Steven F. Oberbauer, Christian Rixen, Craig E. Tweedie, Marilyn Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Inference about future climate change impacts typically relies on one of three approaches: manipulative experiments, historical comparisons (broadly defined to include monitoring the response to ambient climate fluctuations using repeat sampling of plots, dendroecology, and paleoecology techniques), and space-for-time substitutions derived from sampling along environmental gradients. Potential limitations of all three approaches are recognized. Here we address the congruence among these three main approaches by comparing the degree to which tundra plant community composition changes (i) in response to in situ experimental warming, (ii) with interannual variability in summer temperature within sites, and (iii) over spatial gradients in summer temperature. We analyzed changes in plant community composition from repeat sampling (85 plant communities in 28 regions) and experimental warming studies (28 experiments in 14 regions) throughout arctic and alpine North America and Europe. Increases in the relative abundance of species with a warmer thermal niche were observed in response to warmer summer temperatures using all three methods; however, effect sizes were greater over broad-scale spatial gradients relative to either temporal variability in summer temperature within a site or summer temperature increases induced by experimental warming. The effect sizes for change over time within a site and with experimental warming were nearly identical. These results support the view that inferences based on space-for-time substitution overestimate the magnitude of responses to contemporary climate warming, because spatial gradients reflect long-term processes. In contrast, in situ experimental warming and monitoring approaches yield consistent estimates of the magnitude of response of plant communities to climate warming.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)448-452
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number2
Early online date29 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jan 2015

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