Do Peatlands Hibernate?
Abstract:Winter seasonality with extensive frost, snow cover and low incoming radiation characterise large areas at mid- and high latitudes, especially in mountain ranges and in the arctic. Given these adverse conditions, it is often assumed that ecosystem processes, such as plant photosynthesis, nutrient uptake and microbial activities, cease, or at best diminish to marginal rates compared to summer. However, snow is a good thermal insulator and a sufficiently thick snow cover might enable temperature-limited processes to continue in winter, especially belowground. Changes in winter precipitation may alter these conditions, yet, relative to the growing season, winter ecosystem processes remain poorly understood.
We performed a snow-removal experiment on an ombrotrophic bog in the Swiss Jura mountains (1036 m.a.s.l.) to compare above- and belowground ecosystem processes with and without snow cover during mid- and late-winter (February and April) with the subsequent spring (June) and summer (July). The presence of 1m snow in mid-winter and 0.4m snow in late-winter strongly reduced the photosynthetic capacity (Amax) of Eriophorum vaginatum as well as the total microbial biomass compared to spring and summer values. Amax of Sphagnum magellanicum and uptake of 15N-labelled ammonium-nitrate by vascular plants were, however, almost as high or higher in mid- and late-winter as in summer.
Snow removal increased the number of freeze-thaw cycles in mid-winter but also increased the minimum soil temperature in late-winter before ambient snow-melt. This strongly reduced all measured ecosystem processes in mid-winter compared to control and to spring and summer values. Plant 15N-uptake, Amax of Eriophorum and total microbial biomass returned to, or exceeded, control values soon before or after snowmelt. However, Sphagnum Amax and its length growth, as well as the structure of the microbial community showed clear carry-over effects of the reduced winter snow cover into next summer.
Altogether, our data indicate that peatlands are active in winter. However, a continuous snow cover is crucial for ecosystem processes both in winter and in the subsequent summer and a reduction of snow thickness or duration due to climate change may impact on peatland ecosystem functioning at various levels.