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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Non-growing season plant nutrient uptake controls Arctic tundra vegetation composition under future climate


Plant growth and distribution in high-latitude tundra ecosystems is strongly limited by nutrient availability and is critical for quantifying centennial-scale carbon-climate interactions. However, land model representations of plant-nutrient interactions are uncertain, leading to poor comparisons with high-latitude observations. Although it has been recognized for decades in the observational community that plants continue to acquire nutrients well past when aboveground activity has ceased, most large-scale land models ignore this process. Here we address the role tundra plant nutrient acquisition during the non-growing season (NGS) has on centennial-scale vegetation growth and dynamics, with a focus on shrub expansion. We apply a well-tested mechanistic model of coupled plant, microbial, hydrological, and thermal dynamics that explicitly represents nutrient acquisition based on plant and microbial traits, thereby allowing a prognostic assessment of NGS nutrient uptake. We first show that the model accurately represents observed seasonality of NGS plant nutrient uptake in a northern Alaskan tundra site. Applying the model across the North America tundra indicates that NGS nutrient uptake is consistent with observations and ranges between ∼5% and 50% of annual uptake, with large spatial variability and dependence on plant functional type. We show that NGS plant nutrient acquisition strongly enhances modeled 21st century tundra shrub growth and expansion rates. Our results suggest that without NGS nutrient uptake, total shrub aboveground dominance would be ∼50% lower, limited primarily by their inability to grow tall enough to maximize their inherent capacity for light competition. Evergreen shrubs would be more strongly affected because of their relatively lower capacity for nutrient remobilization and acquisition compared to deciduous shrubs. Our results highlight the importance of NGS plant and soil processes on high-latitude biogeochemistry and vegetation dynamics and motivate new observations and model structures to represent these dynamics.

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