The exact cause of population dieback in nature is often challenging to identify retrospectively. Plant research in northern regions has in recent decades been largely focussed on the opposite trend, namely increasing populations and higher productivity. However, a recent unexpected decline in remotely-sensed estimates of terrestrial Arctic primary productivity suggests that warmer northern lands do not necessarily result in higher productivity. As large-scale plant dieback may become more frequent at high northern latitudes with increasing frequency of extreme events, understanding the drivers of plant dieback is especially urgent. Here, we report on recent extensive damage to dominant, short, perennial heath and tundra plant populations in boreal and Arctic Norway, and assess the potential drivers of this damage. In the High-Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, we recorded that 8-50% of Cassiope tetragona and Dryas octopetala shoots were dead, and that the ratios of dead shoots increased from 2014 to 2015. In boreal Norway, 38-63% of Calluna vulgaris shoots were dead, while Vaccinium myrtillus had damage to 91% of shoots in forested sites, but was healthy in non-forested sites. Analyses of numerous sources of environmental information clearly point towards a winter climate-related reason for damage to three of these four species. In Svalbard, the winters of 2011/12 and 2014/15 were documented to be unusually severe, i.e. insulation from ambient temperature fluctuation by snow was largely absent, and ground-ice enforced additional stress. In boreal Norway, the 2013/14 winter had a long period with very little snow combined with extremely low precipitation rates, something which resulted in frost drought of uncovered Calluna plants. However, extensive outbreaks of a leaf-defoliating geometrid moth were identified as the driver of Vaccinium mortality. These results suggest that weather and biotic extreme events potentially have strong impacts on the vegetation state of northern lands.
- Journal Article