Warming experiments elucidate the drivers of observed directional changes in tundra vegetation

Ecol Evol. 2015 May;5(9):1881-95. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1499. Epub 2015 Apr 12.


Few studies have clearly linked long-term monitoring with in situ experiments to clarify potential drivers of observed change at a given site. This is especially necessary when findings from a site are applied to a much broader geographic area. Here, we document vegetation change at Barrow and Atqasuk, Alaska, occurring naturally and due to experimental warming over nearly two decades. An examination of plant cover, canopy height, and community indices showed more significant differences between years than due to experimental warming. However, changes with warming were more consistent than changes between years and were cumulative in many cases. Most cases of directional change observed in the control plots over time corresponded with a directional change in response to experimental warming. These included increases in canopy height and decreases in lichen cover. Experimental warming resulted in additional increases in evergreen shrub cover and decreases in diversity and bryophyte cover. This study suggests that the directional changes occurring at the sites are primarily due to warming and indicates that further changes are likely in the next two decades if the regional warming trend continues. These findings provide an example of the utility of coupling in situ experiments with long-term monitoring to accurately document vegetation change in response to global change and to identify the underlying mechanisms driving observed changes.

Keywords: Arctic; Cassiope tetragona; ITEX; Poa arctica; biodiversity; climate change; community change.