Thermokarst rates intensify due to climate change and forest fragmentation in an Alaskan boreal forest lowland

Lowland boreal forest ecosystems in Alaska are dominated by wetlands comprised of a complex mosaic of fens, collapse-scar bogs, low shrub/scrub, and forests growing on elevated ice-rich permafrost soils. Thermokarst has affected the lowlands of the Tanana Flats in central Alaska for centuries, as thawing permafrost collapses forests that transition to wetlands. Located within the discontinuous permafrost zone, this region has significantly warmed over the past half-century, and much of these carbon-rich permafrost soils are now within ~0.5 °C of thawing. Increased permafrost thaw in lowland boreal forests in response to warming may have consequences for the climate system. This study evaluates the trajectories and potential drivers of 60 years of forest change in a landscape subjected to permafrost thaw in unburned dominant forest types (paper birch and black spruce) associated with location on elevated permafrost plateau and across multiple time periods (1949, 1978, 1986, 1998, and 2009) using historical and contemporary aerial and satellite images for change detection. We developed (i) a deterministic statistical model to evaluate the potential climatic controls on forest change using gradient boosting and regression tree analysis, and (ii) a 30 × 30 m land cover map of the Tanana Flats to estimate the potential landscape-level losses of forest area due to thermokarst from 1949 to 2009. Over the 60-year period, we observed a nonlinear loss of birch forests and a relatively continuous gain of spruce forest associated with thermokarst and forest succession, while gradient boosting/regression tree models identify precipitation and forest fragmentation as the primary factors controlling birch and spruce forest change, respectively. Between 1950 and 2009, landscape-level analysis estimates a transition of ~15 km² or ~7% of birch forests to wetlands, where the greatest change followed warm periods. This work highlights that the vulnerability and resilience of lowland ice-rich permafrost ecosystems to climate changes depend on forest type.
Lara, M.J., H. Genet, A.D. McGuire, E.S. Euskirchen, Y. Zhang, D. Brown, M.T. Jorgenson, V. Romanovsky, A. Breen, W.R. Bolton
Global Change Biology