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Plant Phenology of the European Alps  

Helfried Scheifinger

Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of life cycle events. The Belgian botanist Charles Morren introduced the term in 1853, which is a combination of two Greek words, φαίνω, which means to show, to bring to light, make to appear, and λόγος, which means study, discourse, or reasoning. The global change discussion has stimulated phenological research, which as a consequence greatly advanced as science and evolved to one of the main climate impact indicators. Many of the earliest systematic efforts to collect phenological observations took place in countries sharing the Alps, most of which are still operating phenological networks. These phenological data sets are generally freely available to researchers, and numerous essential contributions to the topic of phenology and climate have been built on those data sets. Plant physiological processes underlying the ability of the plants to adapt to the year-to-year variability of the climate still constitutes largely a black box. Since the experiments of René Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in the 18th century, it is known that temperature constitutes the main environmental driver of the seasonal development of the mid- to high-latitude plants. Second to temperature, day length governs the seasonal cycle of some species as an additional factor. Therefore, temperature-driven phenological models are able to simulate the year-to-year variability of phenological entry dates accurately enough for various applications, such as climate change impact research or numerical pollen forecast models, where the beginning of flowering of some plants is linked with the release of allergic pollen into the atmosphere. Large-scale circulation patterns, like the North Atlantic Oscillation, determine the frequency and intensity of warm and cold spells and decadal temperature trends over Europe. Combined anthropogenic and natural forcings explain the advance of spring phenology over the last 50 years, which is also clearly discernible in the area of the Alps. The early phenological spring starts in Western Europe, whereas later in the season it makes progress with a stronger southerly component across the Alps. The combined temporal and spatial trends have been studied along elevational gradients. Trends toward earlier entry dates are stronger at higher elevations, which indicates that the elevational phenological gradient has weakened since the mid-20th century. Similarly, the vegetation response to temperature is observed to decrease when moving from high to low latitudes. In contrast, the temporal response of plant phenology to increasing temperatures is less clear. Some works indeed demonstrate a decreasing temperature sensitivity with increasing temperature, which is explained as a result of a reduced winter chilling that delays spring phenology or of a limiting effect due to a shorter photoperiod. Other works report no change of temporal temperature sensitivity with increasing temperatures. Indigenous midlatitude vegetation is able to withstand large temperature variations during winter and spring. The safety margin between last frost events, budding, and leaf emergence was found to be uniform across elevations and taxa, except for beech trees. The probability of freezing damage to natural vegetation is almost nil, but late frost risk constitutes a real threat to fruit growers. The ratio of phenological and last frost trends is ambiguous. An increase or decrease in frost risk depends on regions, elevations, and species. Vegetation at high altitudes is exposed to a harsh climate with a long-lasting snow cover, low temperatures, and a short growing season. Snowmelt is a necessary but insufficient requirement for the start of the growing season, which has to be supplemented by plant-specific temperature sums to activate the growth of most alpine and subalpine species. The seasonal cycle has to be completed within a short time. Advances in remote sensing technology have provided access to high-resolution landscape scale phenological information. Especially in remote areas, like the Alps, in situ observations could be supplemented by satellite observations. Observations from both methods, I -situ and remote sensing, have been applied to describe spring vegetation dynamics, but the correlation between these data sets have typically been weak because of differences in temporal and spatial scales and resolutions. A successfully combined description of the seasonal vegetation cycle is still lacking. The area of the European Alps offers a wealth of long chronicles, containing historical phenological observations some of which have been extracted and digitized. Grape harvest dates belong to the most readily available historical phenological observations, which have helped reconstruct summer temperatures as far back as the 15th century.


Saharan Dust Records and Its Impact in the European Alps  

Marion Greilinger and Anne Kasper-Giebl

Mineral dust is one of the main natural sources of atmospheric particulate matter, with the Sahara being one of the most important source regions for the occurrence and deposition of mineral dust in Europe. The occurrence of dust events in the European Alps is documented via measurements of airborne dust and its deposits onto the glaciers. Dust events occur mainly in spring, summer, and early autumn. Dust layers are investigated in ice cores spanning the last millennium as well as in annual snow packs. They strongly affect the overall flux of dust-related compounds (e.g., calcium and magnesium), provide an alkaline input to wet deposition chemistry, and change the microbial abundance and diversity of the snow pack. Still airborne mineral dust particles can act as ice nuclei and cloud condensation nuclei, influencing the formation of cloud droplets and hence cloud formation and precipitation. Dust deposits on the snow lead to a darkening of the surface, referred to as “surface albedo reduction,” which influences the timing of the snowmelt and reduces the annual mass balance of glaciers, showing a direct link to glacier retreat as observed presently in a warming climate.