Quantifying Variability in the Alaskan Black Spruce Ecosystem: Linking Vegetation, Carbon, and Fire History

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Record Last Modified: January 18, 2016
FRAMES Record Number: 9780


The boreal forest is the largest terrestrial ecosystem in North America, one of the least disturbed by humans, and most disturbed by fire. This combination makes it an ideal system to explore the environmental controls over species composition, the relative importance of abiotic factors and floristic composition in governing ecosystem processes, and the importance of legacy effects at a large regional spatial scale. In the boreal region of interior Alaska, Picea mariana (black spruce) is the predominant tree species and spans a wide range of habitats, including north-facing slopes with permafrost, lowland bogs, and high dry ridge-tops. This research uses a combination of site description and analysis from both locally near Fairbanks (54) and across a large region and number of sites (146) to answer questions about the regional variability and biodiversity of the black spruce forest type. Based on the relationships between species composition and environmental factors, topography and elevation were the most important gradients explaining species composition locally in the Fairbanks region, and mineral soil pH was the overriding environmental gradient across interior Alaska. To describe the floristic variability, I separated the black spruce forest type into three floristically-based community types and five community subtypes. Variability in ecosystem properties among black spruce stands was as large as that documented previously among all forest types in the central interior of Alaska. The variability in plant community composition was at least as effective as environmental or abiotic factors and stand characteristics as a predictor of soil C pools in the black spruce forest type of interior Alaska. The variability in species composition at the community subtype-level was related to a combination of environmental factors and fire history. Together, these results provide a foundation for future work in black spruce ecosystems of interior Alaska, and contribute to our understanding of the regional variability and biodiversity of the black spruce forest type.