ABR Authors:
  • Matt Macander
  • JJ Frost


Multi-decadal patterns of vegetation succession after tundra fire on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska

Frost, G. V., R. A. Loehman, L. B. Saperstein, M. J. Macander, P. R. Nelson, D. P. Paradis, and S. M. Natali. 2020. Multi-decadal patterns of vegetation succession after tundra fire on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. Environmental Research Letters. 15(2): 025003. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/ab5f49

Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) is one of the warmest parts of the Arctic tundra biome and tundra fires are common in its upland areas. Here, we combine field measurements, Landsat observations, and quantitative cover maps for tundra plant functional types (PFTs) to characterize multi-decadal succession and landscape change after fire in lichen-dominated upland tundra of the YKD, where extensive wildfires occurred in 1971–1972, 1985, 2006–2007, and 2015. Unburned tundra was characterized by abundant lichens, and low lichen cover was consistently associated with historical fire. While we observed some successional patterns that were consistent with earlier work in Alaskan tussock tundra, other patterns were not. In the landscape we studied, a large proportion of pre-fire moss cover and surface peat tended to survive fire, which favors survival of existing vascular plants and limits opportunities for seed recruitment. Although shrub cover was much higher in 1985 and 1971–1972 burns than in unburned tundra, tall shrubs (>0.5 m height) were rare and the PFT maps indicate high landscape-scale variability in the degree and persistence of shrub increase after fire. Fire has induced persistent changes in species composition and structure of upland tundra on the YKD, but the lichen-dominated fuels and thick surface peat appear to have limited the potential for severe fire and accompanying edaphic changes. Soil thaw depths were about 10 cm deeper in 2006–2007 burns than in unburned tundra, but were similar to unburned tundra in 1985 and 1971–1972 burns. Historically, repeat fire has been rare on the YKD, and the functional diversity of vegetation has recovered within several decades post-fire. Our findings provide a basis for predicting and monitoring post-fire tundra succession on the YKD and elsewhere.