Observed and Potential Responses of Upland Tundra Ecosystems to a Changing Climate: Results from the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research Project, North Slope, Alaska, USA

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 8:15 AM
William B Bowden, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
The Arctic is one of the most rapidly changing biomes on earth. Research at the Toolik Field Station by the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project provides a perspective on changes that are impacting the upland tussock tundra region of the North Slope of Alaska, a region that is typical of ~15% of the arctic region. The arctic is responding to a combination of long-term, gradual changes (presses) and short-term, event-driven changes (pulses). The most important press, of course, is the persistent rise in average annual air temperature observed in most places (though not at Toolik). Associated with this increase in SAT is a well-documented increase in shallow permafrost temperature (which is observed around Toolik). Our long-term research shows that this trend will favor taller and more productive shrub and grass vegetation. Higher SAT translates to earlier spring breakup and later onset of winter. This change in seasonality is affecting interactions between shrub leaf-out, insect emergence, and bird nesting. Persistent and more frequent droughts are having important impacts on the ability of Arctic grayling – the top consumer is most upland tundra streams – to survive and has the potential to block their ability to migrate to essential overwintering lakes. The interaction between temperature (which is changing) and light (which is not) creates a “seasonal asynchrony” that may be increasing the loading of nutrients – notably nitrate – to upland tundra streams late in the season, with impacts that we do not fully understand yet. The upland tundra environment is also responding to an increasing frequency of pulses, most notably wildfires and the development of thermo-erosional failures (TEFs). Wildfires transfer large quantities of carbon and nitrogen directly to the atmosphere. TEFs may deliver large quantities of sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Currently these pulse disturbances seem to be having only limited, local impacts. However, as shallow permafrost in the arctic region approaches the 0ºC tipping point, the combination of presses and pulses may radically and rapidly alter upland tundra terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. These changes will almost certainly occur more rapidly than would be the case if the region were influenced by the press of warming temperature alone.