Effect of Shrub Cover on Spruce Seedling Establishment at and Above Alpine Treeline in the Alaska Range

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Galen Fastie, Vermont Commons School, South Burlington, VT, United States and Andrea H Lloyd, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, United States
Shrub coverage in the arctic has significantly increased in the past 50 years. Spruce seedling establishment in areas above the upper forest boundary has likewise increased as treeline has advanced. Little is known about the effect of shrubs on spruce seedlings near arctic tree lines, and how shrubs may affect the advance of tree line. In order to determine the effect of these shrubs on seedling establishment, we took measurements of shrub coverage in study plots in the Alaska Range established in the late 1990s at and above the current treeline. At each of ten plots located at and above treeline, ten points were systematically selected, using a grid pattern, and ten were selected at haphazardly chosen seedlings. At each point, a measurement of shrub coverage was taken, indicating the species present at the ground level, under 25 centimeters, between 25cm and a meter, between one and two meters, and between two and four meters, and above four meters above ground level. The data at systematic points indicates almost ubiquitous cover of shrubs in the under 25 cm height class, 43 percent coverage between 25cm and a meter, 14.5 percent coverage between one and two meters, 2 percent coverage between two and four meters, and three percent coverage above four meters. The frequency of each shrub height category at points with seedlings differed significantly from the frequency at the systematic points (χ2 = 26.3, p =.0000337). Points with seedlings had less shrub coverage overall than the systematic points, particularly in the tallest height categories. The frequency of tall shrubs in sites with seedlings was almost half that in the systematic points. Very similar patterns existed in both the tree line and above tree line transects. These results suggest that seedlings preferentially establish in sites without tall shrubs. Shrubs may therefore limit establishment of spruce at tree line, and continued shrub expansion may inhibit or slow tree line expansion.