Disturbance, recovery and tundra vegetation change

Rene van der Wal, Helen Anderson, Audun Stien, Leif Egil Loe, James Speed

Research output: Book/Report/Policy Brief/Technical BriefCommissioned report

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Despite a warming climate, increases in reindeer numbers and a strong increase in the pinkfooted goose population over the last 20 years in the Colesdalen-Semmeldalen-Reindalen area, much of the re-surveyed tundra remained relatively unchanged. In several valleys the vegetation became somewhat wetter, yet in others no difference in the prevalence of difference vegetation types was observed. Disturbance to the tundra was very widespread, and mostly due to geese. However, this had limited impact on the vegetation because most grubbing takes place in wet tundra where recovery is rapid. While the relative abundance of vegetation types remained remarkably similar, the character of a considerable part of notably wet marshes changed. Here, disturbance by geese has allowed the sedge Carex subspathacea to replace formerly abundant graminoids (such as Dupontia spp. and Eriophorum scheuchzeri). From its stronghold in wetter areas, the sedge is now moving into drier parts of the tundra, creating a vegetation type not observed in the past. Similarly, depletion of favoured graminoids by geese in wetter areas has also contributed to an increase in horsetail (Equisetum spp.) in respective communities. Reindeer had greater impacts on the vegetation than expected, with their activities often resulting in bare soil. However, dissimilar to goose driven disturbance, little vegetation change resulted from reindeer activities. An unexpected finding was that many gaps in the vegetation created by reindeer higher up on ridges were subsequently used, and often extended, by geese – a form of interaction not documented before. Human disturbance of the tundra was extremely rarely encountered, and thus negligible compared to both goose and reindeer-driven disturbance. Thus, whilst it is evident that humans can degrade tundra vegetation, notably near settlement areas and points of tourist attraction, we did not witness this in our –spatially extensive – investigation.
Original languageEnglish
Commissioning bodySvalbard Environmental Protection Fund
Number of pages38
Publication statusPrint publication - 2020
Externally publishedYes


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