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A systemic overreaction to years versus decades of warming in a subarctic grassland ecosystem


Temperature governs most biotic processes, yet we know little about how warming affects whole ecosystems. Here we examined the responses of 128 components of a subarctic grassland to either 5–8 or >50 years of soil warming. Warming of >50 years drove the ecosystem to a new steady state possessing a distinct biotic composition and reduced species richness, biomass and soil organic matter. However, the warmed state was preceded by an overreaction to warming, which was related to organism physiology and was evident after 5–8 years. Ignoring this overreaction yielded errors of >100% for 83 variables when predicting their responses to a realistic warming scenario of 1 °C over 50 years, although some, including soil carbon content, remained stable after 5–8 years. This study challenges long-term ecosystem predictions made from short-term observations, and provides a framework for characterization of ecosystem responses to sustained climate change.

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Fig. 1: Whole-ecosystem responses to soil warming.
Fig. 2: Response shapes under soil warming.
Fig. 3: Variable groups and their responses to warming.
Fig. 4: Prediction errors from short-term observations.

Data availability

Raw sequences (FASTQ format) are accessible through the NCBI Sequence Read Archive, under accession nos. SRP099121 and SRP075563 for bacteria (16S) and fungi (ITS1), respectively. Other data supporting the findings of this study are available in Figshare with the data


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T.W.N.W. is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 31003A-176044). J.L.S. is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, the US Department of Energy (contract no. DE-AC02-05CH11231). This work was further supported by a European Research Council Synergy Grant (no. ERC-2013-SyG 610028-IMBALANCE-P, awarded to I.A.J. and J.P.); a joint FWO–FWF grant (nos. FWO-G0F2217N and FWF-I-3237, awarded to I.A.J. and M.Bahn); three European Union Marie Skłodowska-Curie grants (nos. COFUND-291780 and Fellowship-676108, awarded to S.M.J., and Fellowship-707270, awarded to C.d.J.); a Flanders Research Foundation Aspiration Grant (no. 11G1613N, awarded to N.I.W.L.); the Research Fund of the University of Antwerp (TOP-BOF and Methusalem grants, awarded to I.A.J.); grants from the Spanish Government (no. CGL2016-79835-P), the Catalan Government (no. SGR 2017-1005) and the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (no. PRO2008-SO2-PENUELAS) awarded to J.P.; the Icelandic Research Fund (no. 163272-053 FORHOT-FOREST, awarded to B.D.S.); a JPI Climate Project (COUP-Austria, no. BMWFW-6.020/0008, awarded to A.R.); and the European Regional Development Fund (Estonia, Centre of Excellence ENVIRON and EcolChange). We also thank the Agricultural University of Iceland and Icelandic Forest Research for logistical support.

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Authors and Affiliations



I.A.J., B.D.S. and N.I.W.L. established and maintained the field experiment. T.W.N.W., I.A.J., A.R., B.D.S. and E.V. conceived the study. T.W.N.W., I.A.J., B.D.S., A.R, J.P., N.I.W.L., M.Bahn, M.Bartrons, C.D.J., L.F., A.G.-G., G.E.G., S.M.-J., E.S.O., I.O., C.P., J.P., D.R., J.S., P.S., J.L.S., S.V., H.W., K.I.-M. and E.V. provided data (see Supplementary Table 3 for specific contributions) and/or contributed interpretation. T.W.N.W. performed the data analysis and wrote the manuscript in close collaboration with E.V., and with support from I.A.J., J.T.W., B.D.S., A.R., J.P. and N.I.W.L.

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Correspondence to Tom W. N. Walker.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Unresponsive group under soil warming.

The response of grouped variables exposed to long-term (>50 years, yellow; LT) or short-term (5-8 years, red; ST) warming (N = 59). Data are PC1 scores from an EOF performed on the group displaying no significant responses to sustained warming. Statistics reflect significance of warming (W), duration (D) and their interaction (W × D), as determined by a GLS model.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison between an EOF and a PCoA.

The effects of warming intensity (contours) and duration (colours, marginal boxplots) on a grassland exposed to long-term (>50 years) or short-term (5-8 years, red) soil warming (N = 59), as represented by the first two axes of an (a) empirical orthogonal function (EOF) and (b) Principal Coordinates Analysis (PCoA).

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figures 1–9 and Tables 1–4.

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Walker, T.W.N., Janssens, I.A., Weedon, J.T. et al. A systemic overreaction to years versus decades of warming in a subarctic grassland ecosystem. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 101–108 (2020).

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