Shrub growth and expansion in the Arctic tundra: an assessment of controlling factors using an evidence-based approach

Peer Reviewed

Andrew C Martin, Elizabeth S Jeffers, Gillian Petrokofsky, Isla Myers-Smith and Marc Macias-Fauria

Environmental Research Letters, Issue 8, 2017, 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7989.

Woody shrubs have increased in biomass and expanded into new areas throughout the Pan-Arctic tundra biome in recent decades, which has been linked to a biome-wide observed increase in productivity. Experimental, observational, and socio-ecological research suggests that air temperature—and to a lesser degree precipitation—trends have been the predominant drivers of this change. However, a progressive decoupling of these drivers from Arctic vegetation productivity has been reported, and since 2010, vegetation productivity has also been declining. We created a protocol to (a) identify the suite of controls that may be operating on shrub growth and expansion, and (b) characterise the evidence base for controls on Arctic shrub growth and expansion. We found evidence for a suite of 23 proximal controls that operate directly on shrub growth and expansion; the evidence base focused predominantly on just four controls (air temperature, soil moisture, herbivory, and snow dynamics). 65% of evidence was generated in the warmest tundra climes, while 24% was from only one of 28 floristic sectors. Temporal limitations beyond 10 years existed for most controls, while the use of space-for-time approaches was high, with 14% of the evidence derived via experimental approaches. The findings suggest the current evidence base is not sufficiently robust or comprehensive at present to answer key questions of Pan-Arctic shrub change. We suggest future directions that could strengthen the evidence, and lead to an understanding of the key mechanisms driving changes in Arctic shrub environments.

Categories: Arctic, Natural Science