Sullivan, Patrick F., Sarah B. Ellison, Robert W. McNown, Annalis H. Brownless, and Bjartmar Sveinbjörnsson. 2014. Evidence of soil nutrient availability as the proximate constraint on growth of treeline trees in northwest Alaska. Ecology 96(3): 716–727. <doi 10.1890/14-0626.1>
The position of the Arctic treeline, which is a key regulator of surface energy exchange and carbon cycling, is widely thought to be controlled by temperature. Here, we present evidence that soil nutrient availability, rather than temperature, may be the proximate control on growth of treeline trees at our study site in northwest Alaska. We examined constraints on growth and allocation of white spruce in three contrasting habitats. The habitats had similar aboveground climates, but soil temperature declined from the riverside terrace to the forest to the treeline. We identified six lines of evidence that conflict with the hypothesis of direct temperature control and/or point to the importance of soil nutrient availability. First, the magnitude of aboveground growth declined from the terrace to the forest to the treeline, along gradients of diminishing soil nitrogen (N) availability and needle N concentration. Second, peak rates of branch extension, main stem radial and fine-root growth were generally not coincident with seasonal air and soil temperature maxima. At the treeline, in particular, rates of aboveground and fine-root growth declined well before air and soil temperatures reached their seasonal peaks. Third, in contrast with the hypothesis of temperature-limited growth, growing season average net photosynthesis was positively related to the sum of normalized branch extension, main stem radial and fine-root growth across trees and sites. Fourth, needle nonstructural carbohydrate concentration was significantly higher on the terrace, where growth was greatest. Fifth, annual branch extension growth was positively related to snow depth, consistent with the hypothesis that deeper snow promotes microbial activity and greater soil nutrient availability. Finally, the tree ring record revealed a large growth increase during late 20th-century climate warming on the terrace, where soil N availability is relatively high. Meanwhile, trees in the forest and at the treeline showed progressively smaller growth increases. Our results suggest temperature effects on tree growth at our study sites may be mediated by soil nutrient availability, making responses to climate change more complex and our ability to interpret the tree ring record more challenging than previously thought.