Tall deciduous shrubs offset delayed start of growing season through rapid leaf development in the Alaskan arctic tundra

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Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research
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Increasing temperatures in arctic regions are causing earlier spring snowmelt, leading to earlier plant emergence, which could lengthen the period of carbon uptake. Warming is also leading to a shift from graminoid to deciduous shrub- dominated tundra, and in many areas deciduous shrubs are becoming taller. As taller shrubs become increasingly dominant, arctic landscapes may retain more snow, which could lengthen spring snow cover duration and offset advances in the start of the growing season that are expected as a result of earlier spring snowmelt. As a consequence, deeper snow and later snowmelt in taller shrub tundra could delay plant emergence and shorten the period of carbon uptake. This study tracked leaf development of two abundant deciduous shrubs, Betula nana and Salix pulchra, and compared individuals along a natural shrub height gradient on the North Slope of Alaska. We measured spring snow depth and snow cover duration, bud and developing leaf nitrogen content, as well as the tim- ing of budburst and leaf expansion. Taller deciduous shrubs in shrub-dominated communities had deeper snow surrounding them, and became snow-free 1 to 6 days later, delaying budburst by 2 to 12 days relative to shorter deciduous shrubs in graminoid-dominated communities. However, leaf development of tall shrubs caught up to that of short shrubs; occasionally, tall shrubs reached full leaf expan- sion 1 to 4 days before short shrubs, indicating more rapid leaf development. This convergence in the timing of later leaf development stages is potentially enabled by approximately 16% to 25% greater nitrogen in buds and developing leaves of taller shrubs compared with shorter shrubs. Our findings suggest that delayed snowmelt in areas dominated by taller shrubs may have a short-lived impact on the timing of leaf development, likely resulting in no difference in duration of peak photosynthetic period between tall and short stature shrubs.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1657/1938-4246-46.3.682