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Theses Doctoral

The Impact of Deciduous Shrub Dominance on Phenology, Carbon Flux, and Arthropod Biomass in the Alaskan Arctic Tundra

Sweet, Shannan Kathlyn

Arctic air temperatures have increased at two to three times the global rate over the past century. As a result, abiotic and biotic responses to climate change are more rapid and pronounced in the Arctic compared to other biomes. One important change detected over the past several decades by satellite studies is a lengthening of the arctic growing season, which is due to earlier onsets and/or delayed ends to growing seasons. A handful of studies also suggest the peak green season (i.e. when the tundra is at maximum leaf-out and maximum carbon uptake potential) is starting earlier in the arctic tundra. The vast majority of studies detecting shifts in the growing season suggest this is due to increasing spring and fall air temperatures, which lead to earlier spring snowmelt and later fall snowfall. Less well understood is how indirect consequences of arctic warming, such as ongoing changes in plant community composition, may also be contributing to these satellite signals. For instance, there is mounting evidence that deciduous shrubs are expanding into previously non-shrub dominated tundra in several parts of the Arctic. Deciduous shrubs may alter tundra canopy phenology and contribute to the regional shifts in timing of phenological events being detected by satellites. Concurrently, in many areas where deciduous shrubs are expanding they are also becoming taller. As taller shrubs become increasingly dominant, arctic landscapes may retain more snow, which could lengthen spring snow cover duration, and offset advances in the start of the growing season that are expected as a result of earlier spring snowmelt. As a consequence, deeper snow and later snowmelt in taller shrub tundra could delay plant emergence, and shorten the period of annual carbon uptake. Thus greater dominance of taller stature deciduous shrubs in the Arctic may actually delay the onset of the growing season, which would suggest that increasing deciduous shrub dominance may not be contributing to satellite signals of an earlier start to the growing season. To contribute to satellite-detected shifts in the onset of the growing and peak seasons, tall deciduous shrubs would need to have accelerated leaf development to compensate for deeper snow packs and later spring snowmelt relative to surrounding tundra. Understanding the drivers of shifts in tundra phenology is important since longer (or shorter) growing and peak green seasons would increase (or decrease) productivity and the period of carbon uptake, which will have implications for landscape-level carbon exchange, and ultimately global carbon balances. Given the rate and magnitude of changes occurring in the face of acute arctic warming, there is a need to monitor, understand, and predict ecological responses over large spatial and temporal scales. However, compared to more southern environments, the arctic tundra is characterized by considerable heterogeneity in vegetation distribution, as well as a short and rapid growing season. In addition, the arctic tundra is relatively vast and inaccessible. These characteristics can make it difficult to monitor and study changes in the Arctic, and make it difficult to develop landscape-level models able to predict changes in ecosystem dynamics and tundra vegetation. The use of airborne and satellite sensors has at least partially fulfilled these needs to monitor, understand, and predict change in the Arctic. The normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) acquired from these sensors, for instance, has become a widely adopted tool for detecting and quantifying spatial-temporal dynamics in tundra vegetation cover, productivity, and phenology. This suggests that remote sensing technology and vegetation indices may be similarly applied to characterizing patterns of primary and secondary consumers (e.g. arthropods), which would be enormously useful in a region as vast and remote as the Arctic. The research presented in this dissertation provides useful insight into the influence vegetation community composition, particularly increasing deciduous shrub dominance, has on phenology, carbon flux, and canopy arthropod biomass in the arctic foothills region of the Brooks Range, Alaska. Findings in Chapter one suggest that delayed snowmelt in areas dominated by taller shrubs may have a short-lived impact on the timing of leaf development, likely resulting in no difference in duration of peak photosynthetic period between tall and short- stature shrubs. Findings in Chapter two suggest that greater deciduous shrub dominance not only increases carbon uptake due to higher leaf area relative to surrounding tundra, but may also be causing an earlier onset of, and ultimately a net extension of, the period of maximum tundra greenness and further increasing peak season carbon sequestration. Findings in Chapter three suggest that measurements of the NDVI made from air and spaceborne sensors may be able to quantify spatial and temporal variation in canopy arthropod biomass at landscape to regional scales in the arctic tundra.

Geographic Areas


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Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Boelman, Natalie T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
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