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Microtopographic control of treeline advance in Noatak National Preserve, Northwest Alaska

Sullivan, P.F. and Sveinbjornsson, B. 2010. Ecosystems 13: 275-285

Abstract

Arctic treeline positions are of fundamental importance to the function of high latitude landscapes, as regulators of surface energy exchange and carbon cycling. Most studies aimed at explaining current and predicting future treeline positions have examined growth trends in mature treeline trees, but treeline advance requires seed production, germination, seedling establishment, and recruitment of new trees beyond the treeline and these processes may not be well correlated with growth of mature trees. Tussock tundra is a widespread, micro topographically complex vegetation type, covering vast areas of northern Alaska and Siberia. We examined a site where the white spruce (Picea glauca) treeline has recently advanced into tussock tundra and asked if white spruce seedlings (~36-cm tall) occurred in tussocks, inter tussocks, and frost boils disproportionate to the abundance of these habitats in the treeline ecotone. We found that seedlings disproportionately occurred in tussocks and frost boils. Seedlings found in tussocks and frost boils also showed greater branch growth than those in inter-tussocks. Tussocks and frost boils had higher soil temperatures than inter-tussocks. Tussocks had higher N, P, and K availability, whereas frost boils had greater secondary and micro nutrient availability. The disproportionate occurrence of seedlings in tussocks and frost boils can likely be explained by the combination of warmer soils and greater nutrient availability. It is also possible that low competition for primary nutrients contributes to the success of seedlings in frost boils. Results of the study highlight the importance of biotic and abiotic facilitation as mediators of treeline advance in a changing Arctic.

Key Words

arctic treeline, Eriophorum vaginatum, facilitation, nutrient availability, Picea glauca, soil temperature, tussock tundra