Effects of arctic shrub expansion on biophysical vs. biogeochemical drivers of litter decomposition

Jennie Demarco, Michelle C. Mack, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


Climate warming in arctic tundra may shift dominant vegetation from graminoids to deciduous shrubs, whose functional traits could, in turn, alter biotic and abiotic controls over biogeochemical cycling of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). We investigated whether shrub-induced changes in microclimate have stronger effects on litter decomposition and nutrient release than changes in litter quality and quantity. In arctic tundra near Toolik Lake, AK, USA, we incubated a common substrate in a snow-addition experiment to test whether snow accumulation around arctic deciduous shrubs altered the environment enough to increase litter decomposition rates. We compared the influence of litter quality on the rate of litter and N loss by decomposing litter from four different plant functional types in a common site. We used aboveground net primary production values and estimated decay constant (k) values from our decomposition experiments to calculate community-weighted mass loss for each site. Snow addition had no effect on decomposition of the common substrate, and the site with the highest abundance of shrubs had the lowest decomposition rates. Species varied in their decomposition rates, with species from the same functional type not always following similar patterns. Community-weighted mass loss was 1.5 times greater in the high shrub site, and only slightly decreased when adjusted for soil environment, suggesting that litter quality and quantity are the primary drivers of community decomposition. Our findings suggest that on a short time scale, the changes in soil environment associated with snow trapping by shrubs are unlikely to influence litter nutrient turnover enough to drive positive snow-shrub feedbacks. The mechanisms driving shrub expansion are more likely to do with shrub-litter feedbacks, where the higher growth rates and N uptake by shrubs allows them to produce more leaves, resulting in a larger litter N pool and faster internal cycling of nutrients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1861-1875
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Arctic
  • Climate Change
  • Deciduous Shrubs
  • Decomposition
  • Litter Quality
  • Snow Manipulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Effects of arctic shrub expansion on biophysical vs. biogeochemical drivers of litter decomposition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this