Range shifts in a foundation sedge potentially induce large Arctic ecosystem carbon losses and gains

Salvatore R. Curasi*, Ned Fetcher, Rebecca E. Hewitt, Peter M. Lafleur, Michael M. Loranty, Michelle C. Mack, Jeremy L. May, Isla H. Myers-Smith, Susan M. Natali, Steven F. Oberbauer, Thomas C. Parker, Oliver Sonnentag, Sergio A. Vargas Zesati, Stan D. Wullschleger, Adrian V. Rocha

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Foundation species have disproportionately large impacts on ecosystem structure and function. As a result, future changes to their distribution may be important determinants of ecosystem carbon (C) cycling in a warmer world. We assessed the role of a foundation tussock sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum) as a climatically vulnerable C stock using field data, a machine learning ecological niche model, and an ensemble of terrestrial biosphere models (TBMs). Field data indicated that tussock density has decreased by 1/40.97 tussocks per m2 over the past 1/438 years on Alaska's North Slope from 1/41981 to 2019. This declining trend is concerning because tussocks are a large Arctic C stock, which enhances soil organic layer C stocks by 6.9% on average and represents 745 Tg C across our study area. By 2100, we project that changes in tussock density may decrease the tussock C stock by 41% in regions where tussocks are currently abundant (e.g. -0.8 tussocks per m2 and -85 Tg C on the North Slope) and may increase the tussock C stock by 46% in regions where tussocks are currently scarce (e.g. +0.9 tussocks per m2 and +81 Tg C on Victoria Island). These climate-induced changes to the tussock C stock were comparable to, but sometimes opposite in sign, to vegetation C stock changes predicted by an ensemble of TBMs. Our results illustrate the important role of tussocks as a foundation species in determining future Arctic C stocks and highlight the need for better representation of this species in TBMs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number045024
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Apr 2022


  • Arctic
  • carbon cycle
  • carbon stocks
  • climate change
  • Eriophorum vaginatum
  • tundra


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