PRS Publications

Cumulative Impacts and Feedbacks of a Gravel Road on Shrub Tundra Ecosystems in the Peel Plateau, Northwest Territories, Canada

Gill, Harneet K;. Lantz, Trevor C.; O'Neill, Brendan; Kokelj, Steven V.. 2014. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research

Abstract

Gravel highways in the continuous permafrost zone provide critical transportation links that are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate warming and permafrost thaw. To examine if the physical effects associated with the construction, maintenance, and use of gravel roads alter vegetation and permafrost conditions, we measured vegetation, soils, and near-surface ground temperatures at tall and dwarf shrub tundra sites adjacent to and distant from the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories of Canada. We found that alder growth and recruitment were significantly enhanced adjacent to the highway. Where alder shrubs had formed closed canopies, we observed dramatic alterations to plant community composition, soil properties, and ground temperatures. Tall shrub sites adjacent to the road exhibited less understory vegetation, greater litter and organic layer thickness, higher nutrient availability, and thicker snowpack than all other site types. Our results show that in shrub tundra ecosystems the conditions generated by the maintenance and use of a gravel road can drive ecological feedbacks that magnify changes to vegetation communities and soils. We found that where the road facilitated shrub dominance, feedbacks were initiated that enhanced snow accumulation and altered ground temperatures and soil chemistry. In turn, these changes likely promoted enhanced shrub recruitment and growth. Shrub proliferation adjacent to highways is an important consideration for the planning and maintenance of this form of infrastructure. To improve our understanding of the spatial heterogeneity of shrub proliferation, research exploring the relationships between biophysical landscape features and shrub development is also needed.