Study illustrates shifting Alaska boreal forest ecosystem
March 1st, 2011 | Alaska Newspapers Staff
A new study released in the scientific journal Ecology Letters offers one of the first confirmations of a wholesale shift in the boreal forest ecosystem due to climate change.
Among the findings, researchers said, is increased tree growth in the Western Alaska tundra margin.
Collaborators on the study, which compared three-ring data to satellite images, include Glenn Juday, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and co-author of the article.
"This is one of the first extensive analyses of annual growth and climate response of black spruce in Alaska," said Juday, who collaborated on the UAF research with Valerie Barber, Patricia Heiser and Emily Sousa.
The study found that tree growth declined across most of the current area of Alaska boreal forest but increased in a smaller area on the cold margins of the forest.
Scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center and three other institutions based in Alaska and France conducted the study. UAF scientists were instrumental in the project, which involved one of the largest and most widely distributed samples of tree-ring data ever analyzed in Alaska: 839 trees, including 627 white spruce from 46 stands and 212 black spruce from 42 stands.
"The tree rings tell us for sure what's happening on the ground, and the satellite data covers the whole region," said Juday. "Recent temperature increases have reduced tree growth over most of central Alaska, and increased growth in places where the temperature used to be too low for optimum growth, such as the Western Alaska tundra margin. Summer temperatures in central Interior Alaska are now almost too warm for white spruce to survive."
The study is the first time the two sets of data were compared, Juday said. "Every tree ring sample was compared to the satellite data and they mostly agreed. It's particularly impressive that the tree ring and satellite data agree so well. This gives the final piece of assurance that this is real."
Pieter Beck, a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Research Center and lead author of the study, said the results offer evidence of the biome shifting in response to climate change and indicate that some ecosystem models may be missing changes happening in the circumpolar region.
"While the findings contrast with some recent model predictions of increased high latitude vegetation productivity, they are consistent with longer-term projections of global vegetation models," Beck said.
Scott Goetz, a senior scientist at WHRC, proposed the study and co-authored the manuscript.
"Most people don't think of high-latitudes forests as being drought stressed and they are not, in the traditional sense of having soils dry up and blow away, but their growth is negatively impacted by hot dry air masses and those have increased in recent years," he said. "This paper shows those drought impacts are captured in both the satellite and the tree ring record."
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