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  1. Abstract

    Changes in vegetation distribution are underway in Arctic and boreal regions due to climate warming and associated fire disturbance. These changes have wide ranging downstream impacts—affecting wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling, climate feedbacks and fire regimes. It is thus critical to understand where these changes are occurring and what types of vegetation are affected, and to quantify the magnitude of the changes. In this study, we mapped live aboveground biomass for five common plant functional types (PFTs; deciduous shrubs, evergreen shrubs, forbs, graminoids and lichens) within Alaska and northwest Canada, every five years from 1985 to 2020. We employed a multi-scale approach, scaling from field harvest data and unmanned aerial vehicle-based biomass predictions to produce wall-to-wall maps based on climatological, topographic, phenological and Landsat spectral predictors. We found deciduous shrub and graminoid biomass were predicted best among PFTs. Our time-series analyses show increases in deciduous (37%) and evergreen shrub (7%) biomass, and decreases in graminoid (14%) and lichen (13%) biomass over a study area of approximately 500 000 km2. Fire was an important driver of recent changes in the study area, with the largest changes in biomass associated with historic fire perimeters. Decreases in lichen and graminoid biomass often corresponded withmore »increasing shrub biomass. These findings illustrate the driving trends in vegetation change within the Arctic/boreal region. Understanding these changes and the impacts they in turn will have on Arctic and boreal ecosystems will be critical to understanding the trajectory of climate change in the region.

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  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 1, 2023
  3. Arctic vegetation communities are rapidly changing with climate warming, which impacts wildlife, carbon cycling and climate feedbacks. Accurately monitoring vegetation change is thus crucial, but scale mismatches between field and satellite-based monitoring cause challenges. Remote sensing from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has emerged as a bridge between field data and satellite-based mapping. We assess the viability of using high resolution UAV imagery and UAV-derived Structure from Motion (SfM) to predict cover, height and aboveground biomass (henceforth biomass) of Arctic plant functional types (PFTs) across a range of vegetation community types. We classified imagery by PFT, estimated cover and height, and modeled biomass from UAV-derived volume estimates. Predicted values were compared to field estimates to assess results. Cover was estimated with root-mean-square error (RMSE) 6.29-14.2% and height was estimated with RMSE 3.29-10.5 cm, depending on the PFT. Total aboveground biomass was predicted with RMSE 220.5 g m-2, and per-PFT RMSE ranged from 17.14-164.3 g m-2. Deciduous and evergreen shrub biomass was predicted most accurately, followed by lichen, graminoid, and forb biomass. Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of using UAVs to map PFT biomass, which provides a link towards improved mapping of PFTs across large areas using earth observation satellite imagery.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 12, 2023
  4. Abstract Widespread changes in the distribution and abundance of plant functional types (PFTs) are occurring in Arctic and boreal ecosystems due to the intensification of disturbances, such as fire, and climate-driven vegetation dynamics, such as tundra shrub expansion. To understand how these changes affect boreal and tundra ecosystems, we need to first quantify change for multiple PFTs across recent years. While landscape patches are generally composed of a mixture of PFTs, most previous moderate resolution (30 m) remote sensing analyses have mapped vegetation distribution and change within land cover categories that are based on the dominant PFT; or else the continuous distribution of one or a few PFTs, but for a single point in time. Here we map a 35 year time-series (1985–2020) of top cover (TC) for seven PFTs across a 1.77 × 10 6 km 2 study area in northern and central Alaska and northwestern Canada. We improve on previous methods of detecting vegetation change by modeling TC, a continuous measure of plant abundance. The PFTs collectively include all vascular plants within the study area as well as light macrolichens, a nonvascular class of high importance to caribou management. We identified net increases in deciduous shrubs (66 ×more »10 3 km 2 ), evergreen shrubs (20 × 10 3 km 2 ), broadleaf trees (17 × 10 3 km 2 ), and conifer trees (16 × 10 3 km 2 ), and net decreases in graminoids (−40 × 10 3 km 2 ) and light macrolichens (−13 × 10 3 km 2 ) over the full map area, with similar patterns across Arctic, oroarctic, and boreal bioclimatic zones. Model performance was assessed using spatially blocked, nested five-fold cross-validation with overall root mean square errors ranging from 8.3% to 19.0%. Most net change occurred as succession or plant expansion within areas undisturbed by recent fire, though PFT TC change also clearly resulted from fire disturbance. These maps have important applications for assessment of surface energy budgets, permafrost changes, nutrient cycling, and wildlife management and movement analysis.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 1, 2023
  5. Abstract Forest characteristics, structure, and dynamics within the North American boreal region are heavily influenced by wildfire intensity, severity, and frequency. Increasing temperatures are likely to result in drier conditions and longer fire seasons, potentially leading to more intense and frequent fires. However, an increase in deciduous forest cover is also predicted across the region, potentially decreasing flammability. In this study, we use an individual tree-based forest model to test bottom-up (i.e. fuels) vs top-down (i.e. climate) controls on fire activity and project future forest and wildfire dynamics. The University of Virginia Forest Model Enhanced is an individual tree-based forest model that has been successfully updated and validated within the North American boreal zone. We updated the model to better characterize fire ignition and behavior in relation to litter and fire weather conditions, allowing for further interactions between vegetation, soils, fire, and climate. Model output following updates showed good agreement with combustion observations at individual sites within boreal Alaska and western Canada. We then applied the updated model at sites within interior Alaska and the Northwest Territories to simulate wildfire and forest response to climate change under moderate (RCP 4.5) and extreme (RCP 8.5) scenarios. Results suggest that changing climatemore »will act to decrease biomass and increase deciduous fraction in many regions of boreal North America. These changes are accompanied by decreases in fire probability and average fire intensity, despite fuel drying, indicating a negative feedback of fuel loading on wildfire. These simulations demonstrate the importance of dynamic fuels and dynamic vegetation in predicting future forest and wildfire conditions. The vegetation and wildfire changes predicted here have implications for large-scale changes in vegetation composition, biomass, and wildfire severity across boreal North America, potentially resulting in further feedbacks to regional and even global climate and carbon cycling.« less
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