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Vegetation responses in Alaskan arctic tundra after 8 years of a summer warming and winter snow manipulation experiment

Authors

  • C.-H. A. Wahren,

    1. Boreal Ecology Cooperative Research Unit/School of Agriculture and Land Resource Management, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99705, USA,
    2. RMB 4360 Merrijig, Victoria 3723, Australia,
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  • M. D. Walker,

    1. Boreal Ecology Cooperative Research Unit/School of Agriculture and Land Resource Management, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99705, USA,
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  • M. S. Bret-Harte

    1. Boreal Ecology Cooperative Research Unit/School of Agriculture and Land Resource Management, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99705, USA,
    2. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK 99705, USA
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Dr M. S. Bret-Harte, e-mail: Syndonia.BretHarte@uaf.edu

Abstract

We used snow fences and small (1 m2) open-topped fiberglass chambers (OTCs) to study the effects of changes in winter snow cover and summer air temperatures on arctic tundra. In 1994, two 60 m long, 2.8 m high snow fences, one in moist and the other in dry tundra, were erected at Toolik Lake, Alaska. OTCs paired with unwarmed plots, were placed along each experimental snow gradient and in control areas adjacent to the snowdrifts. After 8 years, the vegetation of the two sites, including that in control plots, had changed significantly. At both sites, the cover of shrubs, live vegetation, and litter, together with canopy height, had all increased, while lichen cover and diversity had decreased. At the moist site, bryophytes decreased in cover, while an increase in graminoids was almost entirely because of the response of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum. These community changes were consistent with results found in studies of responses to warming and increased nutrient availability in the Arctic. However, during the time period of the experiment, summer temperature did not increase, but summer precipitation increased by 28%. The snow addition treatment affected species abundance, canopy height, and diversity, whereas the summer warming treatment had few measurable effects on vegetation. The interannual temperature fluctuation was considerably larger than the temperature increases within OTCs (<2°C), however. Snow addition also had a greater effect on microclimate by insulating vegetation from winter wind and temperature extremes, modifying winter soil temperatures, and increasing spring run-off. Most increases in shrub cover and canopy height occurred in the medium snow-depth zone (0.5–2 m) of the moist site, and the medium to deep snow-depth zone (2–3 m) of the dry site. At the moist tundra site, deciduous shrubs, particularly Betula nana, increased in cover, while evergreen shrubs decreased. These differential responses were likely because of the larger production to biomass ratio in deciduous shrubs, combined with their more flexible growth response under changing environmental conditions. At the dry site, where deciduous shrubs were a minor part of the vegetation, evergreen shrubs increased in both cover and canopy height. These changes in abundance of functional groups are expected to affect most ecological processes, particularly the rate of litter decomposition, nutrient cycling, and both soil carbon and nitrogen pools. Also, changes in canopy structure, associated with increases in shrub abundance, are expected to alter the summer energy balance by increasing net radiation and evapotranspiration, thus altering soil moisture regimes.

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