In glacier forelands, seeds readily germinate, however, a high proportion of seedlings die shortly after their appearance. We hypothesized that besides drought, frost and missing safe sites, heat on the ground surface could be one of the major threats for seedlings. The heat strain in different ground strata was assessed from 2007 to 2010. The heat tolerance (LT 50) of eleven alpine species from different successional stages was tested considering imbibed (G1) and germinated seeds (G2) as well as seedlings (G3). Additionally, the heat hardening capacity of seedlings was determined in the field. Across all species, LT 50 decreased significantly by 9 K from G1 (55 °C) to G3 (46 °C), similarly in all species of the successional stages. Field-grown seedlings had mostly an increased LT 50 (2K). Intraspecifically, LT 50 of seedlings varied between 40.6 and 52.5 °C. Along the chronosequence, LT 50 in G1 was similar, but was higher in G2 and G3 of early successional species. The highest temperatures occurred at 0–0.5 cm in air (mean/absolute maximum: 42.6/54.1 °C) posing a significant heat injury risk for seedlings when under water shortage transpirational cooling is prevented. Below small stones (0–0.5 cm), maxima were 4 K lower, indicating heat safer microsites. Maxima >30 °C occurred at 32.3, >40 °C at 6.2 %. Interannually, 2010 was the hottest year with heat exceeding LT 50 at all microsites (0–0.5 cm). Temperature maxima on sandy surfaces were lower than on microsites with gravel (diameter <5–10 mm). The hot summer of 2010 may be a small foretaste of in future more severe and frequent heat waves. Ground surface temperature maxima at the pioneer stage are already now critical for heat survival and may partly explain the high seedling mortality recognized on recently deglaciated terrain.