While ecological memory stored in a landscape can usually help ecosystems recover from disturbances such as fires or disease outbreaks, when climate change significantly alters these disturbance patterns – as it happens today – such coping strategies may fail. For instance, ecological memories stored in the warming Arctic may soon be overwritten by new ones, with unforeseen consequences for this region’s capacity to adapt to rapid climate change.
To investigate these issues in interior Alaska during a potentially transformative period for the Arctic’s boreal forests, a team of over 40 scientists led by the Northern Arizona University (NAU) has recently been awarded a $9.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
This six-year-long project will be part of the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, an initiative aiming to improve our understanding of the long-term consequences of changing climate and disturbance regimes in the Alaskan boreal forest.
“We’ve seen how dramatic changes to fire and permafrost in the boreal forest caused by climate warming have already disrupted the way these ecosystems have stabilized themselves for millennia,” said principal investigator Michelle Mack, a professor of Biology at NAU. “Over the next six years, we are going to observe how those legacies and disruptions are shaping the forest’s future and the future for communities who depend on the boreal forest.”
To better understand how human activity has shaped the history of these forests, the scientists will collaborate with Alaska Native tribes to develop research questions that are relevant to their communities and take into account the Natives’ role today in managing Alaskan ecosystems.
Building upon decades of data collected through the Bonanza Creek LTER program, the experts will focus on a network of sites across interior Alaska, investigating topics such as how fires affect successional trajectories, how soil microbes are responding to climate warming, how permafrost thaw is changing the hydrological patterns of the region, and how the aspen leaf miner insect and plant pathogens such as the aspen running canker may determine the ability of aspen to thrive and reproduce.
An example of a previous discovery of the Bonanza Creek team that could be used as a starting point in this new project is that increasingly frequent and severe wildfires in Alaska’s boreal forests have caused faster-growing deciduous trees like paper birch and trembling aspen to colonize areas where slower-growing but more flammable black spruce once dominated. Over the next six years, the researchers plan to monitor a wider variety of forest plots that have burned at different times to clarify how these forests are currently re-growing and changing and what roles fires play in these processes.
“Our work at Bonanza Creek LTER has shown us how uncertain the future of the Arctic boreal forest is. The next stage is for this really talented team to map out what kinds of futures are possible, probable, and how humans will play a role in shaping them,” Mack concluded.
By Andrei Ionescu, Earth.com Staff Writer
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