Fine scale variability in soil frost dynamics surrounding cushions of the dominant vascular plant species (Azorella Selago) on Sub-Antarctic Marion Island

09 November 2010

Through changing soil thermal regimes, soil moisture and affecting weathering and erosion processes plants can have an important effect on the physical properties and structure of soils. Such physical soil changes can in turn lead to biological facilitation, such as vegetation-banked terrace formation or differential seedling establishment. We studied the fine scale variability in soil temperature and moisture parameters, specifically focusing on frost cycle characteristics around cushions of the dominant, vascular plant species, Azorella selago, on sub-Antarctic Marion Island. The frost season was characterised by numerous low intensity and very shallow frost cycles. Soils on eastern cushion sides were found to have lower mean and maximum temperatures in winter than soils on western cushion sides. In addition, lower variability in temperature was found on eastern cushion sides in winter than on western cushion sides, probably as a result of higher wind speeds on western cushion sides and/or eastern, leeside snow accumulation. Despite the mild frost climate, extensive frost heave occurred in the study area, indicating that needle ice forms at temperatures above –2°C. Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of frost pull as a heave mechanism under shallow frost conditions. The results highlight the importance of Azorella cushions in modifying site microclimates and of understanding the consequences of these modifications, such as potentially providing microhabitats. Such potential microhabitats are particularly important in light of current climate change trends on the island, as continued warming and drying will undoubtedly increase the need for thermal and moisture refugia.