Cory A. Wallace


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Scale‐dependent responses of understory vegetation to the physical structure of undisturbed tundra shrub patches
Cory A. Wallace, Jennifer L. Baltzer
Ecosphere, Volume 13, Issue 9

Much of the Arctic is experiencing rapid change in the productivity and recruitment of tall, deciduous shrubs. It is well established that shrub expansion can alter tundra ecosystem composition and function; however, less is known about the degree to which variability in the physical structure of shrub patches might mediate these changes. There is also limited information as to how different physical attributes of shrub patches may covary and how they differ with topography. Here, we address these knowledge gaps by measuring the physical structure, abiotic conditions, and understory plant community composition at sampling plots within undisturbed green alder patches at a taiga–tundra ecotone site in the Northwest Territories, Canada. We found surprisingly few associations between most structural variables and abiotic conditions at the plot scale, with the notable exceptions of canopy complexity and snow depth. Importantly, neither patch structure nor abiotic conditions were associated with the vegetation community at the plot scale when among-patch variation was accounted for. However, among-patch variation in plant community composition was significant and represented a gradient in the richness of tundra specialists and Sphagnum moss abundance. This gradient was strongly associated with mean patch snow depth, which was likely controlled at least in part by mean patch canopy complexity. Overall, natural variability in green alder patch structure had less of an association with abiotic conditions than expected, suggesting future changes in physical structure at undisturbed sites may have limited environmental impact at the plot scale. However, at the patch scale, increases in snow depth, likely related to canopy complexity, were negatively associated with tundra specialist richness, potentially due to phenological limitations associated with shortened growing seasons. In summary, our data suggest emergent properties exist at the patch scale that are not apparent at the plot scale such that plot-scale measurements do not represent variation in understory community composition across the landscape. The results presented here will inform future work addressing spatial variability in shrub impacts on ecosystem function and increase our understanding of understory community variation within alder patch habitats at the taiga–tundra ecotone.


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Seasonal thaw and landscape position determine foliar functional traits and whole‐plant water use in tall shrubs on the low arctic tundra
Katherine L. Black, Cory A. Wallace, Jennifer L. Baltzer
New Phytologist, Volume 231, Issue 1

Climate warming is driving tundra shrub expansion with implications for ecosystem function and regional climate. Understanding associations between shrub ecophysiological function, distribution and environment is necessary for predicting consequences of expansion. We evaluated the role of topographic gradients on upland shrub productivity to understand potential constraints on shrub expansion. At a low arctic tundra site near Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, we measured sap flow, stem water potential and productivity-related functional traits in green alder, and environmental predictors (water and nutrient availability and seasonal thaw depth) across a toposequence in alder patches. Seasonal thaw reduced stem sap flow whereas topographic position predicted stem water potential and productivity-related functional traits. Upslope shrubs were more water-limited than those downslope. Shrubs in drainage channels had traits associated with greater productivity than those on the tops of slopes. The effect of thaw depth on sap flow has implications for seasonal water-use patterns and warming impacts on tundra ecohydrology. Topographic variation in functional traits corresponds with observed spatial patterns of tundra shrub expansion along floodplains and concave hillslopes rather than in upland areas. Green alder is expanding rapidly across the low arctic tundra in northwestern North America; thus, anticipating the implications of its expansion is essential for predicting tundra function.


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Permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands is rapidly altering forest community composition
Katherine D. Dearborn, Cory A. Wallace, Rajit Patankar, Jennifer L. Baltzer
Journal of Ecology, Volume 109, Issue 3

Boreal peatlands are frequently underlain by permafrost, which is thawing rapidly. A common ecological response to thaw is the conversion of raised forested plateaus to treeless wetlands, but unexplained spatial variation in responses, combined with a lack of stand‐level data, make it difficult to predict future trajectories of boreal forest composition and structure. We sought to characterize patterns and identify drivers of forest structure, composition, mortality and recruitment in a boreal peatland experiencing permafrost thaw. To do this, we established a large (10 ha) permanent forest plot (completed in 2014), located in the Northwest Territories, Canada, that includes 40,584 mapped and measured trees. In 2018, we conducted a comprehensive mortality and recruitment recensus. We also measured frost table depth, soil moisture, soil humification and organic layer thickness within the plot between 2012 and 2018, and used habitat association tests to link these variables to forest characteristics and dynamics. Forest composition and structure varied markedly throughout the plot and were strongly governed by patterns in permafrost presence and organic layer thickness. Overall, there was a net loss of trees from the plot at a rate of 0.7% year−1. Mortality of black spruce, the dominant tree species, was more than double that of recruitment and was strongly associated with permafrost thaw. In contrast, recruitment of larch was over four times greater than mortality, and occurred primarily in low‐lying, permafrost‐free wetlands with mineral soil near the surface. Synthesis. The trends in tree demography and underlying drivers suggest that spruce‐dominated permafrost plateaus will be converted into larch‐dominated wetlands as permafrost thaw progresses in boreal peatlands, particularly in areas where mineral soil is near the surface. In the longer term, thaw could increase the hydrologic connectivity of the landscape, resulting in widespread drainage and re‐vegetation by spruce, but we did not find evidence that this is occurring yet. Given the increasing rates of permafrost thaw, and positive feedbacks between thaw and forest change, we predict that larch abundance will continue to increase in boreal peatlands over the coming decades, leading to shifts in ecosystem function, wildlife habitat, albedo and snow dynamics.


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Tall Shrubs Mediate Abiotic Conditions and Plant Communities at the Taiga–Tundra Ecotone
Cory A. Wallace, Jennifer L. Baltzer
Ecosystems, Volume 23, Issue 4

Shrub expansion has occurred across much of the arctic tundra over the past century. Increasing dominance of woody vegetation is expected to have global influences on climate patterns and lead to local changes in hydrological function and nutrient cycling. Changing abiotic conditions associated with shrubs will likely alter the relative fitness of neighbouring plants resulting in distinct community composition. Here, we use an extensive set of paired abiotic and biotic data to investigate the capacity for Alnus alnobetula (green alder) patches to modify the habitat of the local plant community at the taiga–tundra ecotone of the Northwest Territories, Canada. Plots were established across topographic positions in ten alder patches and adjacent, alder-free tundra. Habitat corresponded to the strongest gradient of among-site variation in abiotic measures and plant community composition, indicating that alder patch growing conditions were distinct from those of alder-free tundra. Slope position was generally unimportant in determining environmental conditions. Alder patches changed the vertical structure of the understory by increasing the maximum height of birch. Tall shrubs also decreased the richness of tundra specialists, suggesting that these species face competitive pressures from shrub expansion at the southern edge of their ranges. Our findings demonstrate that tall shrub patches can substantially modify their local environment in taiga–tundra ecotone systems, altering available habitat and acting as niche constructors for the local plant community. These habitats will therefore be important to consider in regional predictions of hydrology, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity as shrubs continue to expand across the arctic.