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Impacts of elevation on plant traits and volatile organic compound emissions in deciduous tundra shrubs

New publication by Tihomir Simin, Cleo L. Davie-Martin, Julie Petersen, Toke T. Høye, Riikka Rinnan


The northernmost regions of our planet experience twice the rate of climate warming compared to the global average. Despite the currently low air temperatures, tundra shrubs are known to exhibit high leaf temperatures and are increasing in height due to warming, but it is unclear how the increase in height will affect the leaf temperature. To study how temperature, soil moisture, and changes in light availability influence the physiology and emissions of climate-relevant volatile organic compounds (VOCs), we conducted a study on two common deciduous tundra shrubs, Salix glauca (separating males and females for potential effects of plant sex) and Betula glandulosa, at two elevations in South Greenland. Low-elevation Salix shrubs were 45% taller, but had 37% lower rates of net CO2 assimilation and 63% lower rates of isoprene emission compared to high-elevation shrubs. Betula shrubs showed 40% higher stomatal conductance and 24% higher glandular trichome density, in the low-elevation valley, compared to those from the high-elevation mountain slope. Betula green leaf volatile emissions were 235% higher at high elevation compared to low elevation. Male Salix showed a distinct VOC blend and emitted 55% more oxygenated VOCs, compared to females, possibly due to plant defense mechanisms. In our light response curves, isoprene emissions increased linearly with light intensity, potentially indicating adaptation to strong light. Leaf temperature decreased with increasing Salix height, at 4 °C m−1, which can have implications for plant physiology. However, no similar relationship was observed for B. glandulosa. Our results highlight that tundra shrub traits and VOC emissions are sensitive to temperature and light, but that local variations in soil moisture strongly interact with temperature and light responses. Our results suggest that effects of climate warming, alone, poorly predict the actual plant responses in tundra vegetation.