It is essential that scientists be able to predict how strong climate warming, including profound changes to winter climate, will affect the ecosystem services of alpine, arctic and boreal areas, and how these services are driven by vegetation-soil feedbacks. One fruitful avenue for studying such changing feedbacks is through plant functional traits, as an understanding of these traits may help us to understand and synthesise (1) responses of vegetation (through 'response traits' and 'specific response functions' of each species) to winter climate and (2) the effects of changing vegetation composition (through 'effect traits' and 'specific effect functions' of each species) on soil functions. It is the relative correspondence of variation in response and effect traits that will provide useful data on the impacts of winter climate change on carbon and nutrient cycling processes. Here we discuss several examples of how the trait-based, response-effect framework can help scientists to better understand the effects of winter warming on key ecosystem functions in cold biomes. These examples support the view that measuring species for their response and effect traits, and how these traits are linked across species through correspondence of variation in specific response and effects functions, may be a useful approach for teasing out the contribution of changing vegetation composition to winter warming effects on ecosystem functions. This approach will be particularly useful when linked with ecosystem-level measurements of vegetation and process responses to winter warming along natural gradients, over medium time scales in given sites or in response to experimental climate manipulations. © 2013 The Ecological Society of Japan.