Time-series maps reveal widespread change in plant functional type cover across Arctic and boreal Alaska and Yukon

Matthew J. Macander, Peter R. Nelson, Timm W. Nawrocki, Gerald V. Frost, Kathleen M. Orndahl, Eric C. Palm, Aaron F. Wells, Scott J. Goetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Widespread changes in the distribution and abundance of plant functional types (PFTs) are occurring in Arctic and boreal ecosystems due to the intensification of disturbances, such as fire, and climate-driven vegetation dynamics, such as tundra shrub expansion. To understand how these changes affect boreal and tundra ecosystems, we need to first quantify change for multiple PFTs across recent years. While landscape patches are generally composed of a mixture of PFTs, most previous moderate resolution (30 m) remote sensing analyses have mapped vegetation distribution and change within land cover categories that are based on the dominant PFT; or else the continuous distribution of one or a few PFTs, but for a single point in time. Here we map a 35 year time-series (1985-2020) of top cover (TC) for seven PFTs across a 1.77 × 106 km2 study area in northern and central Alaska and northwestern Canada. We improve on previous methods of detecting vegetation change by modeling TC, a continuous measure of plant abundance. The PFTs collectively include all vascular plants within the study area as well as light macrolichens, a nonvascular class of high importance to caribou management. We identified net increases in deciduous shrubs (66 × 103 km2), evergreen shrubs (20 × 103 km2), broadleaf trees (17 × 103 km2), and conifer trees (16 × 103 km2), and net decreases in graminoids (-40 × 103 km2) and light macrolichens (-13 × 103 km2) over the full map area, with similar patterns across Arctic, oroarctic, and boreal bioclimatic zones. Model performance was assessed using spatially blocked, nested five-fold cross-validation with overall root mean square errors ranging from 8.3% to 19.0%. Most net change occurred as succession or plant expansion within areas undisturbed by recent fire, though PFT TC change also clearly resulted from fire disturbance. These maps have important applications for assessment of surface energy budgets, permafrost changes, nutrient cycling, and wildlife management and movement analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number054042
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2022


  • Alaska
  • Canada
  • Landsat
  • plant cover
  • plant functional type

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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