Comparative Carbon and Water Relations of Betula nana and Poa pratensis in West Greenland

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Sean M.P. Cahoon1, Patrick F Sullivan2, Jeffrey M Welker3 and Eric Post1, (1)Penn State University, Department of Biology, University Park, PA, United States, (2)University of Alaska Anchorage, Environment and Natural Resources Institute, Anchorage, AK, United States, (3)University of Alaska Anchorage, Department of Biological Sciences, Anchorage, AK, United States
The expansion of woody shrubs throughout much of the Arctic in recent decades is a common observation in response to climate change. However, we lack a complete understanding of how woody shrubs differ physiologically from neighboring species and how these differences may confer competitive advantages to woody shrubs as the climate continues to change. At a site in West Greenland, we combined detailed leaf physiological measurements with stable isotope analysis of plant leaf material, xylem water and soil water to elucidate the processes governing seasonal carbon (C) gain in the two dominant plant species at our study site: Betula nana and Poa pratensis. We hypothesized that cooler, drier soils beneath the Betula canopy would result in greater drought sensitivity during times of high atmospheric demand (i.e. greater water vapor pressure deficit; VPD), which would manifest in reduced leaf carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C), reduced stomatal conductance (gs) and a negative relationship between leaf Δ13C and Δ18O in accordance with the dual-isotope conceptual model. Data collected over two consecutive growing seasons, however, revealed greater drought sensitivity in Poa, which displayed a dramatic reduction in Amax and gs during periods of high VPD, along with reduced leaf Δ13C. Additionally, leaf Δ13C and Δ18O were negatively correlated in Poa, suggesting strong stomatal influence on Δ13C. Conversely, we found no relationship between leaf Δ13C and Δ18O in Betula, indicating that seasonal variation in Δ13C may have been driven primarily by changes in photosynthesis. Our results suggest that, although Poa maintains greater average leaf-level photosynthesis, this species is more susceptible to drought than Betula. Meanwhile, it may be that Betula employs a strategy to avoid drought stress and maintain steady, yet conservative, C gain. This strategy may enable growth to continue during warm and dry conditions, conferring a competitive advantage for Betula in a changing climate. While our data clearly show greater drought-sensitivity in Poa and a potential advantage for Betula, these results are limited to two seasons and two species. However, we feel that our evidence is strong enough to spur future research into plant-water-carbon relations as it relates to shrub expansion in the Arctic.