Can nutrient limitations explain low and declining white spruce growth near the Arctic treeline in the eastern Brooks Range, Alaska?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Sarah Ellison, University of Alaska Anchorage, Anchorage, AK, United States and Patrick F Sullivan, University of Alaska Anchorage, Environment and Natural Resources Institute, Anchorage, AK, United States
The position of the Arctic treeline is of critical importance for global carbon cycling and surface energy budgets. However, controls on tree growth at treeline remain uncertain. In the Alaskan Brooks Range, 20th century warming has caused varying growth responses among treeline trees, with trees in the west responding positively, while trees in the east have responded negatively. The prevailing explanation of this trend ascribes the negative growth response to warming-induced drought stress in the eastern Brooks Range. However, recent measurements of carbon isotope discrimination in tree rings, xylem sap flow and needle gas exchange suggest that drought stress cannot explain these regional growth declines. Additionally, evidence from the western Brooks Range suggests that nutrient availability, rather than drought stress, may be the proximate control on tree growth. In this study, we investigated the hypothesis that low and declining growth of eastern Brooks Range trees is due to low and declining soil nutrient availability, which may continue to decrease with climate change as soils become drier and microbial activity declines. We compared microclimate, tree performance, and a wide range of proxies for soil nutrient availability in four watersheds along a west-east transect in the Brooks Range during the growing seasons of 2013 and 2014. We hypothesized that soil nutrient availability would track closely with the strong west-east precipitation gradient, with higher rainfall and greater soil nutrient availability in the western Brooks Range. We expected to find that soil water contents in the west are near optimum for nitrogen mineralization, while those in the east are below optimum. Needle nitrogen concentration, net photosynthesis, branch extension growth, and growth in the main stem are expected to decline with the hypothesized decrease in soil nutrient availability. The results of our study will elucidate the current controls on growth of trees near the Arctic treeline, enabling improved predictions of future treeline position and more accurate reconstructions of past climate.