Thawing seasonal ground ice: An important water source for boreal forest plants in Interior Alaska

Jessica M. Young-Robertson, Kiona Ogle, Jeffrey M. Welker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Little is known about the ecological impacts of permafrost degradation on water fluxes in boreal ecosystems, such as those in Interior Alaska. Low plant water stress suggests a reliance on a diversity of water sources. In addition to rainfall, we hypothesize that deep soil water derived from thawing seasonal ground ice (TSGI) supports plants during dry periods. We analyzed water stable isotopes from soils, plants, ice, and rain collected from stable and unstable permafrost sites. We found that TSGI provides a background water source for plants during wet years (at least 10–20%) and a stable source during dry years (at least 30–50%) and early in the growing season (60–80% in wet and dry years). Plant water uptake patterns “track” the soil thawing front, using deep and shallow layers in wet years and deep layers during dry years. This plasticity allows boreal plants to cope with seasonal drought and exploit available water sources. The availability of TGSI depends on the amount of rainfall the prior year and on permafrost stability. Thawing permafrost may reduce the buffering capacity of TGSI due to less seasonal ice from greater drainage and/or a deeper active layer. This study demonstrates the importance of two buffering mechanisms for plants to cope with rainfall variability within boreal forest underlain by permafrost—availability of TSGI and plasticity in water uptake patterns. We suggest that plant utilization of stored water may be why evapotranspiration in northern latitudes can exceed growing season precipitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1796
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Bayesian model
  • active layer
  • boreal forests
  • isotope mixing model
  • permafrost
  • plant water sources
  • stable isotopes
  • subarctic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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