Recovery of arctic tundra from thermal erosion disturbance is constrained by nutrient accumulation: A modeling analysis

A. R. Pearce, E. B. Rastetter, B. L. Kwiatkowski, W. B. Bowden, M. C. Mack, Y. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


We calibrated the Multiple Element Limitation (MEL) model to Alaskan arctic tundra to simulate recovery of thermal erosion features (TEFs) caused by permafrost thaw and mass wasting. TEFs could significantly alter regional carbon (C) and nutrient budgets because permafrost soils contain large stocks of soil organic matter (SOM) and TEFs are expected to become more frequent as the climate warms. We simulated recovery following TEF stabilization and did not address initial, short-term losses of C and nutrients during TEF formation. To capture the variability among and within TEFs, we modeled a range of poststabilization conditions by varying the initial size of SOM stocks and nutrient supply rates. Simulations indicate that nitrogen (N) losses after the TEF stabilizes are small, but phosphorus (P) losses continue. Vegetation biomass recovered 90% of its undisturbed C, N, and P stocks in 100 years using nutrients mineralized from SOM. Because of low litter inputs but continued decomposition, younger SOM continued to be lost for 10 years after the TEF began to recover, but recovered to about 84% of its undisturbed amount in 100 years. The older recalcitrant SOM in mineral soil continued to be lost throughout the 100-year simulation. Simulations suggest that biomass recovery depended on the amount of SOM remaining after disturbance. Recovery was initially limited by the photosynthetic capacity of vegetation, but became co-limited by N and P once a plant canopy developed. Biomass and SOM recovery was enhanced by increasing nutrient supplies, but the magnitude, source, and controls on these supplies are poorly understood. Faster mineralization of nutrients from SOM(e.g., by warming) enhanced vegetation recovery but delayed recovery of SOM. Taken together, these results suggest that although vegetation and surface SOM on TEFs recovered quickly (25 and 100 years, respectively), the recovery of deep, mineral soil SOM took centuries and represented a major ecosystem C loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1271-1289
Number of pages19
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Alaska
  • Arctic
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Disturbance
  • Ecosystem model
  • Global climate change
  • Nutrient cycles
  • Permafrost
  • Thermokarst
  • Tundra

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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