Examining mechanisms in the final stages of the elimination of boreal tree species on vulnerable sites in boreal Alaska
Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
The boreal forest of Alaska and western Canada exist in a complex mosaic of environments determined by elevation, aspect of exposure, and longitudinal and latitudinal gradients of change from warm, dry continental to maritime-influenced conditions. This forest region is largely made up of trees with two growth responses to temperature increases. Trees that decrease in growth are termed negative responders, and occupy warm, dry sites at low elevations. Trees that increase in radial growth are termed positive responders, and are largely in western Alaska, and at high elevation of the Brooks and Alaska Ranges. Since the Pacific climate regime shift of the 1970s, mature trees at low elevation sites have experienced increasing climate stress in several quasi-decadal cycles of intensifying drought stress. NDVI trends and tree ring records demonstrating radial growth decline are coherent. Phenological monitoring of spruce height growth also indicates that depletion of spring soil moisture is a critical process driven by the interaction of early warm season temperatures and precipitation. Novel biotic disturbance agents including spruce budworm, outbreaks of which are triggered by warm temperature anomalies related to its biology, and aspen leaf miner are depressing realized growth below climatically predicted levels, suggesting a pathway by which tree death is likely to occur before absolute temperature limits. As a result, insect outbreaks are degrading the otherwise strong long-term climate signal in Alaska boreal trees. However, young tree (> 40 yrs.) regeneration generally does not yet display the symptoms of acute high temperature stress. Overall, on these vulnerable sites, if temperature increases similar to the past 40 years continue, long term survival prospects are questionable because the climate conditions would be outside the limits that have historically defined the species ranges of aspen, Alaska birch, and black and white spruce.