Influence of snow cover distribution on soil temperature and nutrient dynamics in alpine pedoenvironments
AbstractIn Alpine sites snow is present on the ground from six to eight months per year in relation to elevation and exposure. Water is therefore immobilized into the solid state for the greater part of the winter season and released to the ground in a short period during spring snowmelt. In these areas, snow distribution exercises a fundamental role in influencing soil temperature and nutrient dynamics, in particular of nitrogen, with great consequences on plant nutrition. The dormant vegetation period, the low temperatures and the persistent snow cover suggest that soil biological activity is only concentrated during summer. As a matter of fact, soils covered with a consistent snow cover are isolated from the air temperature and can not freeze during winter. A snowpack of sufficient thickness, accumulated early in winter, insulates the ground from the surrounding atmosphere maintaining soil temperature closed to 0 °C during the whole winter season. The elevation of the snow line and the shorter permanence of snow on the ground, as a result of global warming (IPCC, 1996, 2001), might reduce the insulation effect of the snowpack, exposing soils of the mountain belt to lower temperatures and to a greater frequency of freeze/thaw cycles, which might alter organic matter dynamics and soil nutrient availability. Such thermal stresses may determine the lysis of microbial cells and the consequent increase of nitrogen and carbon mineralization by the survived microorganisms. Moreover, the freeze/thaw cycles can determine the exposure of exchange surfaces not available before, with release of organic matter of non-microbial origin, which may become available to surviving microorganisms for respiration. The reduced or absent microbial immobilization may cause the accumulation of remarkable amounts of inorganic nitrogen in soil, potentially leachable during spring snowmelt, when plants have not still started the growing season. Changes of snow distribution in alpine sites can consequently have a great impact on the thermal regime and nutrient cycle of soils. The environmental implications have to be estimated for a long time, through specific studies that aim to evidence the indirect effects of climatic change on characteristics of alpine pedoenvironments.
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