Topographic controls on the leaf area index and plant functional type of a tundra ecosystem


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Leaf area index (LAI) is an emergent property of vascular plants closely linked to primary production and surface energy balance. LAI can vary by an order of magnitude among Arctic tundra communities and is closely associated with plant functional type.
  • 2We examined topographic controls on vegetation type and LAI distribution at two different scales in an Arctic tundra ecosystem in northern Sweden. ‘Micro-scale’ measurements were made at 0.2-m resolution over a 40 m × 40 m domain, while ‘macro-scale’ data were collected at approximately 10-m resolution over a 500 m × 500 m domain. Tundra LAI varied from 0.1–3.6 at the micro-scale resolution, and from 0.1–1.6 at the macro-scale resolution.
  • 3The correlation between dominant vascular species and LAI at the micro-scale (r2 = 0.40) was greater than the correlation between dominant vegetation and LAI at the macro-scale (r2 = 0.14). At the macro-scale, LAI was better explained by topographic parameters and spatial auto-correlation (pseudo r2 = 0.32) than it was at the micro-scale (r2 = 0.16). Exposure and elevation were significantly but weakly correlated with LAI at the micro-scale, while on the macro-scale the most significant explanatory topographic variable was elevation (r2 = 0.12).
  • 4The distribution of plant communities at both scales was significantly associated with topography. Shrub communities, dominated by Betula nana, were associated with low elevation sites at both scales, while more exposed and/or high elevation sites were dominated by cryptogams.
  • 5Synthesis. Dominant vegetation, topography and LAI were linked at both scales of investigation but, for explaining LAI, topography became more important and dominant vegetation less important at the coarser scale. The explanatory power of dominant species/functional type for LAI variation was weaker at coarser scales, because communities often contained more than one functional type at 10 m resolution. The data suggest that remotely sensed topography can be combined with remotely sensed optical measurements to generate a useful tool for LAI mapping in Arctic environments.