The ecosystems of alpine snowbed habitats are reviewed with emphasis on ecosystem functioning and capability to adapt to current and predicted global change. Snowbeds form in topographic depressions that accumulate large amounts of snow during the winter months, and the final snowmelt does not occur until late in the growing season. Many species preferentially grow in snowbed habitats and some of these are even restricted to these habitats. In this review we identify several ecosystem services which snowbeds provide to the alpine landscape. For instance, snowbeds provide a steady water and nutrient supply to adjacent plant communities and offer newly emerged high-quality food for herbivores late in the growing season. We also propose that alpine snowbeds are much more productive than earlier thought, especially when the very short growing season and often high grazing pressure are taken fully into account. Furthermore, we propose that bryophytes and graminoids (grasses, sedges, and rushes) probably will be most negatively impacted by global change, and the snowbed plant communities will be invaded by species from adjacent plant communities, especially by shrubs and boreal species. As snowbed plants have special growth conditions, their sensitivity and ability to respond rapidly to changes in annual snowfall patterns make snowbed communities particularly vulnerable in a warmer climate, and thereby sensitive indicators of global change.
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Vol. 39 • No. 1