As Winters Get Warmer, Sugar Maples May Absorb Less Silicon
Earth & Space Science News (April 17, 2017)

Scientists predict that rising winter temperatures will reduce snow cover in mountainous and temperate forests. Without the insulating effects of snow, the underlying soil will freeze more readily. New research by Maguire et al. suggests that increased soil freezing will hinder uptake of silicon by sugar maple roots. This lack of silicon could have significant ecological effects.

Sugar maples and other plants obtain silicon-containing substances from groundwater. The trees convert this silicon into biogenic silica, which can perform a variety of functions, such as structural support and protection against harmful fungi. Increased availability of silicon for plants has been linked to thicker leaves, increased chlorophyll content, enhanced seedling growth, and increased seed production. Silicon uptake by plants also affects silicon levels in downstream ecosystems.

Global warming means less snow cover and more frost on soil, preventing silicon uptake by trees.

The team hypothesized that silicon uptake could be hindered by reduced snow cover (previous research had shown similar results for nitrogen uptake). To test this idea, they obtained sugar maple roots that had been collected during a prior study in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Some roots were from trees grown in plots that were left alone for the first 6 weeks of two consecutive winters. The rest were from plots that had been cleared of snow in the first 48 hours after the winter’s first 6 weeks of snowfall.

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