Effects of Disturbances on Vegetation Composition and Permafrost Thaw in Boreal Forests and Tundra Ecosystems of the Siberian Arctic

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Erika Ramos1, Heather Dawn Alexander1 and Susan Natali2, (1)University of Texas at Brownsville, Brownsville, TX, United States, (2)Woods Hole Science Center Falmouth, Falmouth, MA, United States
In Arctic ecosystems, climate-driven changes to the thermal regime of permafrost soils have the potential to create surface disturbances that influence vegetation dynamics and underlying soil properties. Disturbance-mediated changes in vegetation are important because vegetation and the accumulation of soil organic matter drive ecosystem carbon (C) dynamics and contribute to the insulation of soils and protection of permafrost from thaw. We examined the effect of two disturbance types—thermokarsts and frost boils—to determine disturbance effects on the vegetation community and soil properties in northeast Siberia. In summer 2014, we measured vegetation cover, soil moisture, soil temperature, and thaw depth in two thermokarst sites within boreal forests, two frost boil sites in tundra, and in adjacent undisturbed sites within both ecosystems. Both thermokarst and frost boils resulted in decreased vegetation cover and greater exposure of mineral soils (10-40% bare soils vs. 0% in undisturbed), and consequently, 2-3 times higher soil temperature and deeper thaw depth. Compared to undisturbed areas, soil moisture was 3-4 times higher in thermokarst areas but 1.2-2 times lower in frost boil areas, which reflected differences in microtopography between these two disturbance types. In both thermokarst and frost boil disturbed areas, deciduous and evergreen shrubs covered only 5 and 10%, respectively, compared to approximately 10 and 20%, respectively, in undisturbed areas. In general, graminoids were substantially more abundant (2-20 times) in disturbed areas than in those undisturbed. These results highlight important linkages between disturbances, vegetation communities, and permafrost soils, and contribute to our understanding of how changes in arctic vegetation dynamics as direct and/or indirect consequences of climate change have the potential to impact permafrost C pools.