High Arctic ecosystem states: Conceptual models of vegetation change to guide long-term monitoring and research

Virve Ravolainen*, Eeva M Soininen, Ingibjörg Svala Jónsdóttir, Isabell Eischeid, Mads Forchhammer, René van der Wal, Åshild Ø Pedersen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)
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Vegetation change has consequences for terrestrial ecosystem structure and functioning and may involve climate feedbacks. Hence, when monitoring ecosystem states and changes thereof, the vegetation is often a primary monitoring target. Here, we summarize current understanding of vegetation change in the High Arctic-the World's most rapidly warming region-in the context of ecosystem monitoring. To foster development of deployable monitoring strategies, we categorize different kinds of drivers (disturbances or stresses) of vegetation change either as pulse (i.e. drivers that occur as sudden and short events, though their effects may be long lasting) or press (i.e. drivers where change in conditions remains in place for a prolonged period, or slowly increases in pressure). To account for the great heterogeneity in vegetation responses to climate change and other drivers, we stress the need for increased use of ecosystem-specific conceptual models to guide monitoring and ecological studies in the Arctic. We discuss a conceptual model with three hypothesized alternative vegetation states characterized by mosses, herbaceous plants, and bare ground patches, respectively. We use moss-graminoid tundra of Svalbard as a case study to discuss the documented and potential impacts of different drivers on the possible transitions between those states. Our current understanding points to likely additive effects of herbivores and a warming climate, driving this ecosystem from a moss-dominated state with cool soils, shallow active layer and slow nutrient cycling to an ecosystem with warmer soil, deeper permafrost thaw, and faster nutrient cycling. Herbaceous-dominated vegetation and (patchy) bare ground would present two states in response to those drivers. Conceptual models are an operational tool to focus monitoring efforts towards management needs and identify the most pressing scientific questions. We promote greater use of conceptual models in conjunction with a state-and-transition framework in monitoring to ensure fit for purpose approaches. Defined expectations of the focal systems' responses to different drivers also facilitate linking local and regional monitoring efforts to international initiatives, such as the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)666–677
Number of pages12
Issue number3
Early online date18 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020

Bibliographical note

Open Access funding provided by Norwegian Polar Institute. We are grateful to our colleagues in COAT—Climate-ecological Observatory for Arctic Tundra for discussions, and to the editor Niels Martin Schmidt and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper.


  • Arctic tundra
  • Climate change
  • Ecological monitoring
  • Ecosystem state
  • Press driver
  • Pulse driver
  • Climate Change
  • Arctic Regions
  • Ecosystem
  • Soil
  • Svalbard
  • Tundra


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