Aim Primary succession in a high arctic environment was examined to determine whether the patterns conform to models based on studies in temperate regions. The location also presented an unique opportunity to examine a well preserved pre-Little Ice Age plant community and organically enriched palaeosol that are being released from the glacier along with the glacial and glaciofluvial sediments.
Locations The main location was the recently deglaciated terrain of the Twin Glacier foreland at Alexandra Fjord, Ellesmere Island (79° N). The position of the glacier from air photos in 1959 and 1981, and periodic direct monitoring of the position of the terminus since 1980 provided good chronological control. Surveys of succession patterns were also conducted at four other sites in the Alexandra Fiord region of eastern central Ellesmere Island.
Methods Vegetation cover of mosses and vascular plants (lichens were not present) was measured in 1994 and 1995 using a stratified random design. twinspan and canonical correspondence analysis were used together to examine successional vegetation patterns in relation to a set of environmental variables. Species richness, total vegetation cover, and a combined set of soil parameters (pH, organic matter content, moisture and fine substrate) were compared between the two principal soil types, palaeosol and glaciofluvial sediment.
Results Terrain age accounted for most of the variation in species composition over the study area. The succession followed a directional-replacement series with four main stages of dominance in at least 44 years: (1) mosses → (2) graminoid-forb → (3) deciduous shrub-moss → (4) evergreen dwarf-shrub-moss. There was little difference in species richness patterns over time on the palaeosol compared with the glaciofluvial sediment. However, total vegetation cover was significantly higher on palaeosol and there was a significant difference in a combined set of soil parameters between the two soil types, which indicates that palaeosol may provide conditions more favourable for establishment and growth.
Main conclusions Directional-replacement succession is possible in a high arctic oasis environment; however, this mode of succession is probably atypical of much more extensive high arctic environments such as polar deserts. Descriptive results from four other glacier forelands sampled in 1995 on east-central Ellesmere Island showed directional succession with no species replacement at two sites and non-directional succession without species replacement at another site. Primary succession in these high arctic sites is strongly controlled by local environmental conditions.