Question: How do interactions between the physical environment and biotic properties of vegetation influence the formation of small patterned-ground features along the Arctic bioclimate gradient?
Location: At 68° to 78°N: six locations along the Dalton Highway in arctic Alaska and three in Canada (Banks Island, Prince Patrick Island and Ellef Ringnes Island).
Methods: We analysed floristic and structural vegetation, biomass and abiotic data (soil chemical and physical parameters, the n-factor [a soil thermal index] and spectral information [NDVI, LAI]) on 147 microhabitat relevés of zonal-patterned-ground features. Using mapping, table analysis (JUICE) and ordination techniques (NMDS).
Results: Table analysis using JUICE and the phi-coefficient to identify diagnostic species revealed clear groups of diagnostic plant taxa in four of the five zonal vegetation complexes. Plant communities and zonal complexes were generally well separated in the NMDS ordination. The Alaska and Canada communities were spatially separated in the ordination because of different glacial histories and location in separate floristic provinces, but there was no single controlling environmental gradient. Vegetation structure, particularly that of bryophytes and total biomass, strongly affected thermal properties of the soils. Patterned-ground complexes with the largest thermal differential between the patterned-ground features and the surrounding vegetation exhibited the clearest patterned-ground morphologies.
Conclusions: Characterizing the composition and structure of small-scale plant communities growing on distinctive microhabitats within patterned-ground complexes was necessary to understand the biological and physical controls of vegetation on patterned-ground morphology. Coarser-scale vegetation units, referred to here as ‘zonal patterned-ground vegetation complexes’ (groups of patterned-ground plant communities within zonal landscapes), were useful for landscape and regional-level comparisons and for extrapolation of information collected at plot scales to larger regions. Vegetation maps of the representative landscapes in each subzone were needed for extrapolation. Different growth characteristics of plants growing in northern and southern parts of the gradient have an important effect in stabilizing highly frost-active soils. A conceptual diagram summarizes the interactions between vegetation and patterned-ground morphology along the Arctic climate gradient.