Climate change causes functionally colder winters for snow cover-dependent organisms


Refugia are habitats that allow organisms to persist when the environment makes persistence impossible elsewhere. The subnivium—the interface between snowpack and ground—is an important seasonal refugium that protects diverse species from extreme winter temperatures, but its future duration is uncertain with climate change. Here, we predict that subnivium duration will decrease from 126 d (2010–2014) to 110 d (2071–2100), which we have inferred using past and future duration of frozen ground with snow cover (Dsc) derived from remotely sensed datasets and climate projections. Concomitantly, duration of frozen ground without snow cover (Dfwos) at mid-latitudes is predicted to increase from 35 d to 45 d, with notable increases in the western United States, Europe, the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia. In most areas, increasing winter temperatures were more important than precipitation for decreasing Dsc and increasing Dfwos. Thus, counter-intuitively, warming climate will cause longer Dfwos at mid-latitudes, causing functional winter cooling for subnivium-dependent organisms.

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Fig. 1: Average Tdiff for the period of frozen ground with snow cover minus average Tdiff for the period of frozen ground without snow cover.
Fig. 2: Observed and predicted values of Dsc and Dfwos for historical (1982–1986), current (2010–2014) and future (2071–2100) periods.
Fig. 3: Global trends in Dsc and Dfwos from 1982 to 2014.
Fig. 4: Global pattern of the effects of winter temperatures on Dsc and Dfwos.
Fig. 5: Global pattern of the relative importance of temperatures and precipitation for Dsc and Dfwos.
Fig. 6: Global patterns of the differences in Dsc and Dfwos between the current (1982–2014) and future (2071–2100) periods.

Data availability

All data used can be freely downloaded from Zenodo ( and are also available from the corresponding authors upon request.

Code availability

The Python and R code used for calculations and analyses can be accessed at GitHub ( and is also available from the corresponding authors upon request.


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Support for this work was provided by NSF/NASA’s Dimensions of Biodiversity programme (1240804), NASA’s Biodiversity and Ecological Forecasting programme (grant no. NNX14AP07G), Shandong Provincial Natural Science Foundation, China (grant no. ZR2019BD040), the open fund of the Ministry of Education Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes, Peking University, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 41701220). C.Z. is supported by the Taishan Scholars Program of Shandong, China (grant no. ts201712071). We thank the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation for providing the ‘Downscaled CMIP3 and CMIP5 Climate and Hydrology Projections’ archive.

Author information




L.Z., A.R.I. and V.C.R. designed the study. L.Z., A.R.I., C.Z., Y.G. and V.C.R. analysed data. L.Z., A.R.I., C.Z., Y.G. and V.C.R. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Likai Zhu or Yuanyuan Guo.

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Zhu, L., Ives, A.R., Zhang, C. et al. Climate change causes functionally colder winters for snow cover-dependent organisms. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 886–893 (2019).

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