• Decadal scale vegetation maps for the boreal forest surrounding Fairbanks, Alaska

      Huhman, Hannah E.; Prakash, Anupma; Rosselló, Jordi Cristóbal; Dewitz, Jon (2018-08)
      Vegetation maps of a selected area within the boreal forest surrounding Fairbanks, Alaska, have been generated for the nominal years of 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015 using Landsat 4 and 5 Thematic Mapper and Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager surface reflectance products at 30 meter spatial resolution using a decision tree classification. The maps include 9 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) vegetation classes, as well as barren land, open water, and ice/snow classes that are consistent with the classes identified in the 2001 National Land Cover Database (NLCD) map of Alaska generated by the USGS. Classification steps are based on USGS methodology, with refinements for the boreal forest, to ensure further comparison to the 2001 USGS NLCD map for Alaska. The overall weighted accuracies of first order estimates of data quality using cross validation are 93.2%, 88.4%, 93.3%, and 86.9% for the nominal years of 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015 maps, respectively, compared to 81.8% accuracy for the USGS NLCD 2001 product. This study demonstrates that the spatial and spectral resolution of Landsat data is the best available for mapping the vegetation of Alaska's boreal forest at 1:50,000 scale. It also shows that the boreal forests surrounding Fairbanks, Alaska have witnessed a decrease in the growth of evergreen forests, an expansion of shrub and an increase in wetland distribution, all of which have been reported as impacts of a warming climate in the Arctic and Sub-arctic.
    • Development of a parameterization for mesoscale hydrological modeling and application to landscape and climate change in the Interior Alaska boreal forest ecosystem

      Endalamaw, Abraham Melesse; Bolton, William R.; Young-Robertson, Jessica M.; Hinzman, Larry; Morton, Donald; Mölders, Nicole; Fochesatto, G. Javier (2017-08)
      The Interior Alaska boreal forest ecosystem is one of the largest ecosystems on Earth and lies between the warmer southerly temperate and colder Arctic regions. The ecosystem is underlain by discontinuous permafrost. The presence or absence of permafrost primarily controls water pathways and ecosystem composition. As a result, the region hosts two distinct ecotypes that transition over a very short spatial scale - often on the order of meters. Accurate mesoscale hydrological modeling of the region is critical as the region is experiencing unprecedented ecological and hydrological changes that have regional and global implications. However, accurate representation of the landscape heterogeneity and mesoscale hydrological processes has remained a big challenge. This study addressed this challenge by developing a simple landscape model from the hill-slope studies and in situ measurements over the past several decades. The new approach improves the mesoscale prediction of several hydrological processes including streamflow and evapotranspiration (ET). The impact of climate induced landscape change under a changing climate is also investigated. In the projected climate scenario, Interior Alaska is projected to undergo a major landscape shift including transitioning from a coniferous-dominated to deciduous-dominated ecosystem and from discontinuous permafrost to either a sporadic or isolated permafrost region. This major landscape shift is predicted to have a larger and complex impact in the predicted runoff, evapotranspiration, and moisture deficit (precipitation minus evapotranspiration). Overall, a large increase in runoff, evapotranspiration, and moisture deficit is predicted under future climate. Most hydrological climate change impact studies do not usually include the projected change in landscape into the model. In this study, we found that ignoring the projected ecosystem change could lead to an inaccurate conclusion. Hence, climate-induced vegetation and permafrost changes must be considered in order to fully account for the changes in hydrology.
    • The effects of permafrost degradation on soil carbon dynamics in Alaska's boreal region

      O'Donnell, Jonathan A. (2010-12)
      High-latitude regions store large quantities of organic carbon (C) in permafrost soils and peatlands, accounting for nearly half of the global belowground C pool. Projected climate warming over the next century will likely drive widespread thawing of near-surface permafrost and mobilization of soil C from deep soil horizons. However, the processes controlling soil C accumulation and loss following permafrost thaw are not well understood. To improve our understanding of these processes, I examined the effects of permafrost thaw on soil C dynamics in forested upland and peatland ecosystems of Alaska's boreal region. In upland forests, soil C accumulation and loss was governed by the complex interaction of wildfire and permafrost. Fluctuations in active layer depth across stand age and fire cycles determined the proportion of soil C in frozen or unfrozen soil, and in turn, the vulnerability of soil C to decomposition. Under present-day climate conditions, the presence of near-surface permafrost aids C stabilization through the upward movement of the permafrost table with post-fire ecosystem recovery. However, sensitivity analyses suggest that projected increases in air temperature and fire severity will accelerate permafrost thaw and soil C loss from deep mineral horizons. In the lowlands, permafrost thaw and collapse-scar bog formation resulted in the dramatic redistribution of soil water, modifying soil thermal and C dynamics. Water impoundment in collapse-scar bogs enhanced soil C accumulation in shallow peat horizons, while allowing for high rates of soil C loss from deep inundated peat horizons. Accumulation rates at the surface were not sufficient to balance deep C losses, resulting in a net loss of 26 g C m⁻² y⁻¹ from the entire peat column during the 3000 years following thaw. Findings from these studies highlight the vulnerability of soil C in Alaska's boreal region to future climate warming and permafrost thaw. As a result, permafrost thaw and soil C release from boreal soils to the atmosphere should function as a positive feedback to the climate system.
    • Linked disturbance interactions in South-Central Alaska: implications for ecosystems and people

      Hansen, Winslow D. (2013-05)
      Communities and ecosystems in the Alaskan boreal forest are undergoing substantial change. People contribute to this change. They are also impacted by the consequences. For example, wildfire and spruce bark beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreaks have increased in frequency and severity due to warming trends, affecting the ecosystem and services important to people. I conducted a study to explore the social and ecological implications of changing natural disturbances. I evaluated how the occurrence of spruce bark beetle outbreak has altered the probability of wildfire between 2001 and 2009 on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Modeling the effects of bark beetle outbreak on the probability of large wildfire (> 500 ha) and small wildfires (<500 ha), I found that the influence of the outbreak differed as a function of wildfire size. The occurrence and length of outbreak increased large wildfire probability. Small wildfires were mediated by human influence and less so by bark beetle outbreak. I also used spatial econometric techniques to estimate how wildfires and the bark beetle outbreak affected property values on the Kenai Peninsula in 2001 and 2010. I found that wildfires> 3.3 ha and the bark-beetle outbreak increased property values. Wildfires <3.3 ha decreased property values.
    • Predatory Hymenopteran assemblages in boreal Alaska: associations with forest composition and post-fire succession

      Wenninger, Alexandria; Wagner, Diane; Hollingsworth, Teresa; Skies, Derek (2018-05)
      Predatory Hymenoptera play key roles in terrestrial foodwebs and affect ecosystem processes, but their assemblage composition and distribution among forest habitats are poorly understood. Historically, the boreal forest of interior Alaska has been characterized by a fire disturbance regime that maintains vegetation composition dominated by black spruce forest. Climate-driven changes in the boreal fire regime have begun to increase the occurrence of hardwood species in the boreal forest, including trembling aspen and Alaska paper birch. Replacement of black spruce forests with aspen forests may influence predatory hymenopteran assemblages due to differences in prey availability and extrafloral nectar provisioning. Furthermore, changes in the frequency and extent of boreal forest fires increase the proportion of forests in earlier successional stages, altering habitat structure. The primary goal of this study was to characterize predatory hymenopteran assemblages in post-fire boreal forests of interior Alaska. To investigate this, the abundance, species richness, and composition of predatory hymenopteran assemblages were compared among forests at different stages of succession that were dominated by black spruce pre-fire, but that vary in their tree species composition post-fire. Predatory hymenopterans were separated into three groups: ants, macropterous wasps, and micropterous wasps. Ant species richness and abundance were not related to forest composition, but both were significantly higher in early-successional forests than in mid-late successional forests. In contrast, macropterous wasp morphospecies richness and abundance, as well as micropterous wasp abundance, were positively related to the basal area of aspen, suggesting that aspen forests benefit macropterous and micropterous wasps, perhaps due to extrafloral nectar provisioning and the availability of greater quality prey than is provided by black spruce. Wasp assemblages did not differ between successional stages. This study is the first to characterize the influence of post-fire succession on predatory hymenopteran assemblages of the boreal forest at a large spatial scale. The results suggest that continued warming of the boreal forest will have cascading influences on the insect assemblages of boreal Alaska.
    • The snowshoe hare filter to spruce establishment in boreal Alaska

      Olnes, Justin; Kielland, Knut; Ruess, Roger; Juday, Glenn; Genet, Helene; Mann, Daniel (2018-05)
      Interior Alaska is a heterogeneous landscape within the circumpolar boreal forest and is largely composed of black and white spruce (Picea mariana and P. glauca). Improving our understanding of the factors affecting patterns in spruce regeneration is particularly important because these factors ultimately contribute to shaping the boreal forest vegetation mosaic. Herbivory by snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) is one factor that likely drives patterns in spruce establishment. The interaction between spruce and snowshoe hares provides an opportunity to study how plant-herbivore interactions can affect succession, vegetation community composition, and consequently, how herbivory influences landscape heterogeneity. I explored how herbivory by snowshoe hares alters the survival and growth of spruce seedlings across Interior Alaska's boreal forest. I hypothesized that the survival and growth rate of regenerating spruce is significantly reduced by snowshoe hare herbivory and that snowshoe hare herbivory influences the pattern of spruce establishment across time and space. To address this hypothesis, I conducted research in three distinct vegetation communities across the region: productive lowland floodplains (Chapters 1 and 2), treeline (Chapters 3 and 4), and recently burned stands of black spruce (Chapter 5). Together these five chapters reveal that snowshoe hares affect spruce establishment across much of boreal Alaska. Where and when hares are abundant, spruce can be heavily browsed, resulting in suppressed seedling growth and increased seedling mortality. The results of these studies also reveal a consistent and predictable pattern in which this plant-herbivore interaction takes place. The snowshoe hare filter acts as a 'spatially aggregating force' to spruce establishment, where the potential for optimal regeneration is highest during periods of low hare abundance and where hares are absent from the landscape.
    • Temporal and spatial variation of broadleaf forest flammability in boreal Alaska

      Wehmas, Maija I.; Verbyla, David; Mann, Daniel; Hollingsworth, Teresea (2018-08)
      The boreal forest is a carbon reservoir containing roughly 40% of the world's reactive soil carbon, which is mainly cycled by wildland fires. Climate warming in boreal Alaska has changed the wildfire regime such that an increase in broadleaf forest relative to conifer forest is likely, which may reduce landscape flammability. However, the current and future flammability of broadleaf forest in a warming climate is not well understood. We used pre-fire and post-fire geospatial data to investigate the flammability of upland boreal forest patches in Interior Alaska in relation to summer weather conditions. Our objectives were to assess burning of broadleaf forest patches during "Normal" vs. "Large Fire Years", by week within a fire season, and by topographic position. Using 30-meter land-cover and fire-severity grids, we estimated the flammability of upland broadleaf forest patches during Large and Normal Fire Years. We then tested for topographic effects using a solar radiation index to eliminate potential deviations within the vegetation. Finally, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) hotspots were used to track the spatial extent of burns during the fire season by examining the periods of fire activity and intensity. Flammability of broadleaf forest patches varied both in time and space. Even during Normal Fire Years, broadleaf forest patches exhibited substantial flammability, with a mean of over 50% patch area burned. Patch flammability was significantly higher during Large Fire Years. Burning of broadleaf patches varied with topographic position and correlated with potential insolation. Broadleaf forest patches burned most frequently in late June-early July. Contrary to "conventional wisdom", broadleaf forest patches in boreal Alaska are susceptible to burning even during Normal Fire Years. With climate warming, the flammability of broadleaf forest is likely to increase due to more extreme fire weather events. Thus, although the frequency of broadleaf forest patches on the landscape is likely to increase with more frequent and severe wildfires, their effectiveness as a fire break may decrease in the future.