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Research article2019Peer reviewed

Half a century of multiple anthropogenic stressors has altered northern forest understory plant communities

Hedwall, Per-Ola; Gustafsson, Lena; Brunet, Jorg; Lindbladh, Matts; Axelsson, Anna-Lena; Strengbom, Joachim


Boreal forests form the largest and least disturbed forest biome in the northern hemisphere. However, anthropogenic pressure from intensified forest management, eutrophication, and climate change may alter the ecosystem functions of understory vegetation and services boreal forests provide. Swedish forests span long gradients of climate, nitrogen deposition, and management intensity. This makes them ideal to study how the species composition and functions of other, more pristine, boreal forests might change under increased anthropogenic pressure. Moreover, the National Forest Inventory (NFI) has collected systematic data on Swedish forest vegetation since the mid-20th century. We use this data to quantify changes in vegetation types between two periods, 1953-1962 and 2003-2012. The results show changes in forest understory vegetation since the 1950s at scales not previously documented in the boreal biome. The spatial extent of most vegetation types changed significantly. Shade-adapted and nutrient-demanding species (those with high specific leaf area) have become more common at the expense of light-demanding and nutrient-conservative (low specific leaf area) species. The cover of ericaceous dwarf shrubs decreased dramatically. These effects were strongest where anthropogenic impacts were greatest, suggesting links to drivers such as nitrogen deposition and land-use change. These changes may impact ecosystem functions and services via effects on higher trophic levels and faster plant litter decomposition in the expanding vegetation types. This, in turn, may influence nutrient dynamics, and consequently ecosystem productivity and carbon sequestration.


boreal forest biome; ecosystem function and services; forest floor vegetation; functional trait analysis; global climate change; ground vegetation; hemiboreal; temporal vegetation dynamics; vegetation types

Published in

Ecological Applications
2019, Volume: 29, number: 4, article number: e01874
Publisher: WILEY