Study sites in relation to surficial geology and major soil landscapes
Figure 1. Study sites in relation to surficial geology and major soil landscapes. Surficial materials are grouped into rock uplands (browns), silty uplands (yellow), gravelly–sandy lowlands (orange), and peaty–silty lowlands (greens). Other landscapes, such as riverine (red) and glaciated (blue), were not included in this study. Boundaries of permafrost zones (gray) are based on Jorgenson et al (2008). Study areas include Innoko (I), Koyukuk (K), Hess Creek (H), Nome Creek (N), Twelve-mile Lake (M), and Taylor Highway (T).
The diversity of ecosystems across boreal landscapes, successional changes after disturbance and complicated permafrost histories, present enormous challenges for assessing how vegetation, water and soil carbon may respond to climate change in boreal regions. To address this complexity, we used a chronosequence approach to assess changes in vegetation composition, water storage and soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks along successional gradients within four landscapes: (1) rocky uplands on ice-poor hillside colluvium, (2) silty uplands on extremely ice-rich loess, (3) gravelly–sandy lowlands on ice-poor eolian sand and (4) peaty–silty lowlands on thick ice-rich peat deposits over reworked lowland loess. In rocky uplands, after fire permafrost thawed rapidly due to low ice contents, soils became well drained and SOC stocks decreased slightly. In silty uplands, after fire permafrost persisted, soils remained saturated and SOC decreased slightly. In gravelly–sandy lowlands where permafrost persisted in drier forest soils, loss of deeper permafrost around lakes has allowed recent widespread drainage of lakes that has exposed limnic material with high SOC to aerobic decomposition. In peaty–silty lowlands, 2–4 m of thaw settlement led to fragmented drainage patterns in isolated thermokarst bogs and flooding of soils, and surface soils accumulated new bog peat. We were not able to detect SOC changes in deeper soils, however, due to high variability. Complicated soil stratigraphy revealed that permafrost has repeatedly aggraded and degraded in all landscapes during the Holocene, although in silty uplands only the upper permafrost was affected. Overall, permafrost thaw has led to the reorganization of vegetation, water storage and flow paths, and patterns of SOC accumulation. However, changes have occurred over different timescales among landscapes: over decades in rocky uplands and gravelly–sandy lowlands in response to fire and lake drainage, over decades to centuries in peaty–silty lowlands with a legacy of complicated Holocene changes, and over centuries in silty uplands where ice-rich soil and ecological recovery protect permafrost.