Is Alaska’s Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta Greening or Browning? Resolving Mixed Signals of Tundra Vegetation Dynamics and Drivers in the Maritime Arctic
Frost, G. V., U. S. Bhatt, M. J. Macander, A. S. Hendricks, and M. T. Jorgenson. Is Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta greening or browning? Resolving mixed signals of tundra vegetation dynamics and drivers in the maritime Arctic. 2021. Earth Interactions 25:76–93.
Alaska’s Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) is among the Arctic’s warmest, most biologically productive regions, but regional decline of the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) has been a striking feature of spaceborne Advanced High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) observations since 1982. This contrast with “greening” prevalent elsewhere in the low Arctic raises questions concerning climatic and biophysical drivers of tundra productivity along maritime–continental gradients. We compared NDVI time series from AVHRR, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), and Landsat for 2000–19 and identified trend drivers with reference to sea ice and climate datasets, ecosystem and disturbance mapping, field measurements of vegetation, and knowledge exchange with YKD elders. All time series showed increasing maximum NDVI; however, whereas MODIS and Landsat trends were very similar, AVHRR-observed trends were weaker and had dissimilar spatial patterns. The AVHRR and MODIS records for time-integrated NDVI were dramatically different; AVHRR indicated weak declines, whereas MODIS indicated strong increases throughout the YKD. Disagreement largely arose from observations during shoulder seasons, when there is partial snow cover and very high cloud frequency. Nonetheless, both records shared strong correlations with spring sea ice extent and summer warmth. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that, despite frequent disturbances and high interannual variability in spring sea ice and summer warmth, tundra productivity is increasing on the YKD. Although climatic drivers of tundra productivity were similar to more continental parts of the Arctic, our intercomparison highlights sources of uncertainty in maritime areas like the YKD that currently, or soon will, challenge historical concepts of “what is Arctic.”