New Paper Published : Hydrological heterogeneity and the plant colonization of recently deglaciated terrain

Climate change accelerates glacier retreat, leading to extensive exposure of sediment to light and ecological succession. Succession has traditionally been studied as a chronosequence, where vegetation development is directly correlated with time since glacier retreat or distance from the retreating glacier margin. More recent work has challenged this model, arguing that succession seems to be mainly influenced by heterogeneous conditions at the local scale. The aim of this study was to identify the factors influencing the local-scale establishment of plant communities following glacier recession. Vascular plants and their cover were inventoried in 100 plots (1 m2) for a thirty-year-old alluvial plain in front of the Otemma glacier (Swiss Alps). Depth to water table, distance to the glacial main river and to the nearest channel, sediment size, moss, lichen, and biological soil crust cover were measured. Results showed that proglacial margins develop hydrological heterogeneity over a small scale, reflected in the four observed plant communities. These range from the dry Sempervivum-dominated community, on gravel-rich sediments with a deep water table, to the Trifolium-dominated community, close to secondary channels, with the highest plant cover and species richness and incorporating grassland species. Heterogeneity in water availability exerted a critical control on vegetation development. A copy of the paper is freely available here.