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  1. Abstract

    Plant biomass is a fundamental ecosystem attribute that is sensitive to rapid climatic changes occurring in the Arctic. Nevertheless, measuring plant biomass in the Arctic is logistically challenging and resource intensive. Lack of accessible field data hinders efforts to understand the amount, composition, distribution, and changes in plant biomass in these northern ecosystems. Here, we presentThe Arctic plant aboveground biomass synthesis dataset, which includes field measurements of lichen, bryophyte, herb, shrub, and/or tree aboveground biomass (g m−2) on 2,327 sample plots from 636 field sites in seven countries. We created the synthesis dataset by assembling and harmonizing 32 individual datasets. Aboveground biomass was primarily quantified by harvesting sample plots during mid- to late-summer, though tree and often tall shrub biomass were quantified using surveys and allometric models. Each biomass measurement is associated with metadata including sample date, location, method, data source, and other information. This unique dataset can be leveraged to monitor, map, and model plant biomass across the rapidly warming Arctic.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 1, 2025
  2. Abstract

    Deciduous tree cover is expected to increase in North American boreal forests with climate warming and wildfire. This shift in composition has the potential to generate biophysical cooling via increased land surface albedo. Here we use Landsat-derived maps of continuous tree canopy cover and deciduous fractional composition to assess albedo change over recent decades. We find, on average, a small net decrease in deciduous fraction from 2000 to 2015 across boreal North America and from 1992 to 2015 across Canada, despite extensive fire disturbance that locally increased deciduous vegetation. We further find near-neutral net biophysical change in radiative forcing associated with albedo when aggregated across the domain. Thus, while there have been widespread changes in forest composition over the past several decades, the net changes in composition and associated post-fire radiative forcing have not induced systematic negative feedbacks to climate warming over the spatial and temporal scope of our study.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available October 23, 2024
  3. Abstract

    Climate change is driving substantial changes in North American boreal forests, including changes in productivity, mortality, recruitment, and biomass. Despite the importance for carbon budgets and informing management decisions, there is a lack of near‐term (5–30 year) forecasts of expected changes in aboveground biomass (AGB). In this study, we forecast AGB changes across the North American boreal forest using machine learning, repeat measurements from 25,000 forest inventory sites, and gridded geospatial datasets. We find that AGB change can be predicted up to 30 years into the future, and that training on sites across the entire domain allows accurate predictions even in regions with only a small amount of existing field data. While predicting AGB loss is less skillful than gains, using a multi‐model ensemble can improve the accuracy in detecting change direction to >90% for observed increases, and up to 70% for observed losses. Higher stem density, winter temperatures, and the presence of temperate tree species in forest plots were positively associated with AGB change, whereas greater initial biomass, continentality (difference between mean summer and winter temperatures), prevalence of black spruce (Picea mariana), summer precipitation, and early warning metrics from long‐term remote sensing time series were negatively associated with AGB change. Across the domain, we predict nondisturbance‐induced declines in AGB at 23% of sites by 2030. The approach developed here can be used to estimate near‐future forest biomass in boreal North America and inform relevant management decisions. Our study also highlights the power of machine learning multi‐model ensembles when trained on a large volume of forest inventory plots, which could be applied to other regions with adequate plot density and spatial coverage.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 1, 2025
  4. The Landsat satellites provide decades of near‐global surface reflectance measurements that are increasingly used to assess interannual changes in terrestrial ecosystem function. These assessments often rely on spectral indices related to vegetation greenness and productivity (e.g. Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, NDVI). Nevertheless, multiple factors impede multi‐decadal assessments of spectral indices using Landsat satellite data, including ease of data access and cleaning, as well as lingering issues with cross‐sensor calibration and challenges with irregular timing of cloud‐free acquisitions. To help address these problems, we developed the ‘LandsatTS' package for R. This software package facilitates sample‐based time series analysis of surface reflectance and spectral indices derived from Landsat sensors. The package includes functions that enable the extraction of the full Landsat 5, 7, and 8 records from Collection 2 for point sample locations or small study regions using Google Earth Engine accessed directly from R. Moreover, the package includes functions for 1) rigorous data cleaning, 2) cross‐sensor calibration, 3) phenological modeling, and 4) time series analysis. For an example application, we show how ‘LandsatTS' can be used to assess changes in annual maximum vegetation greenness from 2000 to 2022 across the Noatak National Preserve in northern Alaska, USA. Overall, this software provides a suite of functions to enable broader use of Landsat satellite data for assessing and monitoring terrestrial ecosystem function during recent decades across local to global geographic extents.

     
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  5. Wildfire activity is increasing in boreal forests as climate warms and dries, increasing risks to rural and urban communities. In black spruce forests of Interior Alaska, fuel reduction treatments are used to create a defensible space for fire suppression and slow fire spread. These treatments introduce novel disturbance characteristics, making longer-term outcomes on ecosystem structure and wildfire risk reduction uncertain. We remeasured a network of sites where fuels were reduced through hand thinning or mechanical shearblading in Interior Alaska to assess how successional trajectories of tree dominance, understory composition, and permafrost change over ∼ 20 years after treatment. We also assessed if these fuel reduction treatments reduce modeled surface rate of fire spread (ROS), flame length, and fireline intensity relative to an untreated black spruce stand, and if surface fire behavior changes over time. In thinned areas, soil organic layer (SOL) disturbance promoted tree seedling recruitment but did not change over time. In shearbladed sites, by contrast, both conifer and broad-leaved deciduous seedling density increased over time and deciduous seedlings were 20 times more abundant than spruce. Thaw depth increased over time in both treatments and was greatest in shearbladed sites with a thin SOL. Understory composition was not altered by thinning but in shearbladed treatments shifted from forbs and horsetail to tall deciduous shrubs and grasses over time. Modeled surface fire behavior was constant in shearbladed sites. This finding is inconsistent with expert opinion, highlighting the need for additional fuels-specific data to capture the changing vegetation structure. Treatment effectiveness at reducing modeled surface ROS, flame length, and fireline intensity depended on the fuel model used for an untreated black spruce stand, pointing to uncertainties about the efficacy of these treatments at mitigating surface fire behavior. Overall, we show that fuel reduction treatments can promote low flammability, deciduous tree dominated successional trajectories, and that shearblading has strong effects on understory composition and permafrost degradation that persist for nearly two decades after disturbance. Such factors need to be considered to enhance the design, management, and predictions of fire behavior in these treatments. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available October 1, 2024
  6. 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 with 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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  7. 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. 
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  8. 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 × 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. 
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  9. Abstract. Fire is the dominant disturbance agent in Alaskan and Canadianboreal ecosystems and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.Burned area and carbon emissions have been increasing with climate change,which have the potential to alter the carbon balance and shift the regionfrom a historic sink to a source. It is therefore critically important totrack the spatiotemporal changes in burned area and fire carbon emissionsover time. Here we developed a new burned-area detection algorithm between2001–2019 across Alaska and Canada at 500 m (meters) resolution thatutilizes finer-scale 30 m Landsat imagery to account for land coverunsuitable for burning. This method strictly balances omission andcommission errors at 500 m to derive accurate landscape- and regional-scaleburned-area estimates. Using this new burned-area product, we developedstatistical models to predict burn depth and carbon combustion for the sameperiod within the NASA Arctic–Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) coreand extended domain. Statistical models were constrained using a database offield observations across the domain and were related to a variety ofresponse variables including remotely sensed indicators of fire severity,fire weather indices, local climate, soils, and topographic indicators. Theburn depth and aboveground combustion models performed best, with poorerperformance for belowground combustion. We estimate 2.37×106 ha (2.37 Mha) burned annually between 2001–2019 over the ABoVE domain (2.87 Mhaacross all of Alaska and Canada), emitting 79.3 ± 27.96 Tg (±1standard deviation) of carbon (C) per year, with a mean combustionrate of 3.13 ± 1.17 kg C m−2. Mean combustion and burn depthdisplayed a general gradient of higher severity in the northwestern portionof the domain to lower severity in the south and east. We also found larger-fire years and later-season burning were generally associated with greatermean combustion. Our estimates are generally consistent with previousefforts to quantify burned area, fire carbon emissions, and their drivers inregions within boreal North America; however, we generally estimate higherburned area and carbon emissions due to our use of Landsat imagery, greateravailability of field observations, and improvements in modeling. The burnedarea and combustion datasets described here (the ABoVE Fire EmissionsDatabase, or ABoVE-FED) can be used for local- to continental-scaleapplications of boreal fire science. 
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