Topographical Controls on Hillslope-Scale Hydrology Drive Shrub Distributions on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska

Zelalem A. Mekonnen, William J. Riley, Robert F. Grant, Verity G. Salmon, Colleen M. Iversen, Sébastien C. Biraud, Amy L. Breen, Mark J. Lara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Observations indicate shrubs are expanding across the Arctic tundra, mainly on hillslopes and primarily in response to climate warming. However, the impact topography exerts on hydrology, nutrient dynamics, and plant growth can make untangling the mechanisms behind shrub expansion difficult. We examined the role topography plays in determining shrub expansion by applying a coupled transect version of a mechanistic ecosystem model (ecosys) in a tundra hillslope site in the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Modeled biomass of the dominant plant functional types agreed well with field measurements (R2 = 0.89) and accurately represented shrub expansion over the past 30 years inferred from satellite observations. In the well-drained crest position, canopy water potential and plant nitrogen (N) uptake was modeled to be low from plant and microbial water stress. Intermediate soil water content in the mid-slope position enhanced mineralization and plant N uptake, increasing shrub biomass. The deciduous shrub growth in the mid-slope position was further enhanced by symbiotic N2 fixation primed by increased root carbon allocation. The gentle slope in the poorly drained lower-slope position resulted in saturated soil conditions that reduced soil O2 concentrations, leading to lower root O2 uptake and lower nutrient uptake and plant biomass. A simulation that removed topographical interconnectivity between grid cells resulted in (1) a 28% underestimate of mean shrub biomass and (2) over or underestimated shrub productivity at the various hillslope positions. Our results indicate that land models need to account for hillslope-scale coupled surface and subsurface hydrology to accurately predict current plant distributions and future trajectories in Arctic ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020JG005823
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • Arctic vegetation change
  • climate warming
  • hillslope hydrology
  • modeling vegetation dynamics
  • shrub expansion
  • shrubs and topography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Forestry
  • Aquatic Science
  • Soil Science
  • Palaeontology
  • Ecology
  • Atmospheric Science


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