Linking Hydrology, Shrub Habitat, and Novel Wildlife in the Arctic

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Ken D Tape1, Jonathan A. O'Donnell2 and Katie Christie1, (1)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States, (2)National Park Service Anchorage, Anchorage, AK, United States
Warming during the 20th century changed the Arctic landscape, including aspects of vegetation, permafrost, and glaciers, but effects on wildlife have been difficult to detect. We explored linkages between components of the riparian ecosystem in Arctic Alaska since the 1970s, including streamflow timing, temperature, floodplain shrub habitat, and shrub herbivore distributions. Streamflow records showed that the peak spring snowmelt discharge has occurred 3.4 days per decade earlier, and consistent fall temperatures and snow arrival dates over the same period suggest that earlier peak discharge has prolonged the ensuing period of reduced flow in the floodplain. We used empirical correlations between cumulative summer warmth and riparian shrub height to estimate that the longer and warmer growing seasons since the 1970s have stimulated a 63% increase in the height of riparian shrubs. Earlier spring discharge and the estimated increase in riparian shrub height are consistent with the observed riparian shrub expansion in the region. Our measurements showed that snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) require a mean riparian shrub height of at least 1.05 to 1.35 m, a threshold which our hindcasting indicates was met between 1977 and 2002. This generally coincides with observational evidence we present suggesting that snowshoe hares became established in 1977 or 1978. Similar relationships are shown for moose, which colonized the region in the 1940s. We also show that Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) inhabited the region in 1998, probably due in part to increasing availability of snowshoe hares. The novel appearance in the Arctic during the 20th century of terrestrial herbivores such as snowshoe hares and moose in response increased shrub habitat is a contrasting terrestrial counterpart to the decline in marine mammals reliant on decreasing sea ice.