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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Plant Sci. | doi: 10.3389/fpls.2019.01099

Alder distribution and expansion across a tundra hillslope: implications for local N cycling

  • 1Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (DOE), United States
  • 2International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, United States
  • 3Department of Plant Biology and Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States

Increases in the availability of nitrogen (N) may have consequences for plant growth and nutrient cycling in N-limited tundra plant communities. We investigated the impact alder (Alnus viridis spp. fruticosa), an N-fixing deciduous shrub, has on tundra N cycling at a hillslope located on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. We quantified N fixation using 15N2 incubations within two distinct alder communities at this site: alder shrublands located on well-drained, rocky outcroppings in the uplands and alder savannas located in water tracks along the moist toeslope of the hill. Annual N fixation rates in alder shrublands were 1.95 ± 0.68 g N m-2 yr-1, leading to elevated N levels in adjacent soils and plants. Alder savannas had lower N fixation rates (0.53 ± 0.19 g N m-2 yr-1), perhaps due to low phosphorus availability and poor drainage in these highly organic soil profiles underlain by permafrost. In addition to supporting higher rates of N fixation, tall-statured alder shrublands had different foliar traits than relatively short-statured alder in savannas, providing an opportunity to link N fixation to remotely-sensed variables. We were able to generate a map of the alder shrubland distribution at this site using a multi-sensor fusion approach. The change in alder shrubland distribution through time was also determined from historic aerial and satellite imagery. Analysis of historic imagery showed that the area of alder shrublands at this site has increased by 40% from 1956 to 2014. We estimate this increase in alder shrublands was associated with a 22% increase in N fixation. Our results suggest that expansion of alder shrublands has the potential to substantially alter N cycling, increase plant productivity, and redistribute C storage in upland tundra regions. An improved understanding of the consequences of N fixation within N-limited tundra plant communities will therefore be crucial for predicting the biogeochemistry of these warming ecosystems.

Keywords: Alnus (alder), Nitrogen Cycling, Nitrogen Fixation, Shrub encroachment, Tundra, Arctic, Tundra greening, nutrient limitation

Received: 26 Apr 2019; Accepted: 09 Aug 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Salmon, Breen, Kumar, Lara, Thornton, Wullschleger and Iversen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Verity G. Salmon, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (DOE), Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge, United States,