Temperatures across the northern regions of North America have been increasing for 150 years, and forests have responded to this increase. In the Noatak National Preserve in Alaska, white spruce (Picea glauca [Moench] Voss) forests reach their northern limit, occurring primarily on well-drained sites and as gallery forests along streams. Rolling plateaus of tundra separate the white spruce forests into disjunct stands. We examined patterns of tree age, tree growth, and tree encroachment into tundra ecosystems in six stands along the Agashashok River. Warming over the past 150 years appears to have increased tree growth and resulted in forest expansion into adjacent tundra ecosystems. The forest/tundra ecotone shifted by about 80 to 100 m into the tundra in the past 200 years, as evidenced by declining maximum tree age with distance towards the tundra. The decadal-scale pattern of tree establishment at the farthest extent of trees into the tundra (the tundra-forest ecotone) correlated with the detrended growth index for trees within the forests; climate conditions that led to higher tree growth appeared to foster tree establishment in the tundra. This recent forest expansion has occurred across topographic boundaries, from well-drained soils on slopes onto poorly drained, flatter areas of tundra. Further expansion of the forests may be limited by more severe wind exposure and poor drainage that make the majority of tundra less suitable for trees.
Additional publication details
Expansion of forest stands into tundra in the Noatak National Preserve, northwest Alaska