The Science of Denali's Changing Landscape

spruce and denali in summer
An article in the February 2013 issue of Ecological Monographs provides new insights about the trees in Denali National Park’s vast, open landscape and how changes in climate may translate to changes across interior Alaska.
field biologists recording data in Denali

The article summarizes work by scientists with the National Park Service’s Inventory and Monitoring program. They examined over 1100 study plots in a 4.5 million-acre area of Denali National Park across 10 years to describe forest communities and draw connections between tree species, habitat, and environmental characteristics. The researchers then used their extensive set of results to evaluate several common hypotheses on how forests of the north will respond to climate change. The result is a study of unprecedented scale that paints an unbiased picture of the diversity of the landscape and sets the stage for tracking future changes in interior Alaska.

In contrast to some previous studies, the authors report that white spruce (Picea glauca) may respond favorably to warming conditions by increasing in abundance and distribution by expanding into newly thawed terrain. In addition, this study reports no current evidence for a large-scale shift from spruce to broadleaf forests in the lowlands of Denali National Park, where coniferous forests still dominate the landscape.

“We now have a solid baseline from which to measure changes and just as importantly, the causes of those changes,” said Carl Roland, biologist with the National Park Service and lead author on the article.

“The effects of climate change can already be seen in Alaska, and this study demonstrates the value of long-term monitoring programs to our collective knowledge about these vast areas.”

Roland, C. A., Schmidt, J. H., and Nicklen, E. F. 2013. Landscape-scale patterns in tree occupancy and abundance in subarctic Alaska. Ecological Monographs: 83 (1): pp. 19–48.

Last Updated: January 16, 2014