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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

High Arctic ecosystem states: Conceptual models of vegetation change to guide long-term monitoring and research

Ravolainen, Virve; Soininen, Eeva M.; Jonsdottir, Ingibjoerg Svala; Eischeid, Isabell; Forchhammer, Mads; van der Wal, Rene; Pedersen, Ashild O.


Vegetation change has consequences for terrestrial ecosystem structure and functioning and may involve climate feedbacks. Hence, when monitoring ecosystem states and changes thereof, the vegetation is often a primary monitoring target. Here, we summarize current understanding of vegetation change in the High Arctic-the World's most rapidly warming region-in the context of ecosystem monitoring. To foster development of deployable monitoring strategies, we categorize different kinds of drivers (disturbances or stresses) of vegetation change either as pulse (i.e. drivers that occur as sudden and short events, though their effects may be long lasting) or press (i.e. drivers where change in conditions remains in place for a prolonged period, or slowly increases in pressure). To account for the great heterogeneity in vegetation responses to climate change and other drivers, we stress the need for increased use of ecosystem-specific conceptual models to guide monitoring and ecological studies in the Arctic. We discuss a conceptual model with three hypothesized alternative vegetation states characterized by mosses, herbaceous plants, and bare ground patches, respectively. We use moss-graminoid tundra of Svalbard as a case study to discuss the documented and potential impacts of different drivers on the possible transitions between those states. Our current understanding points to likely additive effects of herbivores and a warming climate, driving this ecosystem from a moss-dominated state with cool soils, shallow active layer and slow nutrient cycling to an ecosystem with warmer soil, deeper permafrost thaw, and faster nutrient cycling. Herbaceous-dominated vegetation and (patchy) bare ground would present two states in response to those drivers. Conceptual models are an operational tool to focus monitoring efforts towards management needs and identify the most pressing scientific questions. We promote greater use of conceptual models in conjunction with a state-and-transition framework in monitoring to ensure fit for purpose approaches. Defined expectations of the focal systems' responses to different drivers also facilitate linking local and regional monitoring efforts to international initiatives, such as the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.


Arctic tundra; Climate change; Ecological monitoring; Ecosystem state; Press driver; Pulse driver

Published in

AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment
2020, volume: 49, number: 3, pages: 666-677

Authors' information

Ravolainen, Virve
Norwegian Polar Res Inst
Soininen, Eeva M.
Arctic Univ Norway
Jonsdottir, Ingibjoerg Svala
Univ Ctr Svalbard
Eischeid, Isabell
Arctic Univ Norway
Forchhammer, Mads
Univ Copenhagen
van der Wal, René (Van Der Wal, René)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
van der Wal, René (Van Der Wal, René)
University of Aberdeen
Pedersen, Ashild O.
Norwegian Polar Res Inst

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG15 Life on land
SDG13 Climate action

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