PLoS One. 2022 Aug 2;17(8):e0272143. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0272143. eCollection 2022.
Alpine meadows are strongly affected by climate change. Increasing air temperature prolongs the growing season and together with changing precipitation patterns alters soil temperature during winter. To estimate the effect of climate change on soil nutrient cycling, we conducted a field experiment. We transferred undisturbed plant-soil mesocosms from two wind-exposed alpine meadows at ~2100 m a.s.l. to more sheltered plots, situated ~300-400 m lower in the same valleys. The annual mean air temperature was 2°C higher at the lower plots and soils that were normally frozen at the original plots throughout winters were warmed to ~0°C due to the insulation provided by continuous snow cover. After two years of exposure, we analyzed the nutrient content in plants, and changes in soil bacterial community, decomposition, mineralization, and nutrient availability. Leaching of N and P from the soils was continuously measured using ion-exchange resin traps. Warming of soils to ~0°C during the winter allowed the microorganisms to remain active, their metabolic processes were not restricted by soil freezing. This change accelerated nutrient cycling, as evidenced by increased soil N and P availability, their higher levels in plants, and elevated leaching. In addition, root exudation and preferential enzymatic mining of P over C increased. However, any significant changes in microbial biomass, bacterial community composition, decomposition rates, and mineralization during the growing season were not observed, suggesting considerable structural and functional resilience of the microbial community. In summary, our data suggest that changes in soil temperature and snow cover duration during winter periods are critical for altering microbially-mediated processes (even at unchanged soil microbial community and biomass) and may enhance nutrient availability in alpine meadows. Consequently, ongoing climate change, which leads to soil warming and decreasing snow insulation, has a potential to significantly alter nutrient cycling in alpine and subalpine meadows compared to the current situation and increase the year-on-year variability in nutrient availability and leaching.