Importance of tree- and species-level interactions with wildfire, climate, and soils in interior Alaska: Implications for forest change under a warming climate

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

The boreal zone of Alaska is dominated by interactions between disturbances, vegetation, and soils. These interactions are likely to change in the future through increasing permafrost thaw, more frequent and intense wildfires, and vegetation change from drought and competition. We utilize an individual tree-based vegetation model, the University of Virginia Forest Model Enhanced (UVAFME), to estimate current and future forest conditions across sites within interior Alaska. We updated UVAFME for application within interior Alaska, including improved simulation of permafrost dynamics, litter decay, nutrient dynamics, fire mortality, and post-fire regrowth. Following these updates, UVAFME output on species-specific biomass and stem density was comparable to inventory measurements at various forest types within interior Alaska. We then simulated forest response to climate change at specific inventory locations and across the Tanana Valley River Basin on a 2 × 2 km2 grid. We derived projected temperature and precipitation from a five-model average taken from the CMIP5 archive under the RCP 4.5 and 8.5 scenarios. Results suggest that climate change and the concomitant impacts on wildfire and permafrost dynamics will result in overall decreases in biomass (particularly for spruce (Picea spp.)) within the interior Tanana Valley, despite increases in quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) biomass, and a resulting shift towards higher deciduous fraction. Simulation results also predict increases in biomass at cold, wet locations and at high elevations, and decreases in biomass in dry locations, under both moderate (RCP 4.5) and extreme (RCP 8.5) climate change scenarios. These simulations demonstrate that a highly detailed, species interactive model can be used across a large region within Alaska to investigate interactions between vegetation, climate, wildfire, and permafrost. The vegetation changes predicted here have the capacity to feed back to broader scale climate-forest interactions in the North American boreal forest, a region which contributes significantly to the global carbon and energy budgets.