Linear Disturbances Shift Boreal Peatland Plant Communities Toward Earlier Peak Greenness

Scott Davidson
Ellie Goud
Avni Malhotra
Claire Estey
Percy Korsah
Maria Strack
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Vast areas of boreal peatlands are impacted by linear disturbances known as seismic lines. Tree removal and ground disturbance alter vegetation communities and are expected to change ecosystem functioning. We investigate seismic line disturbances on peatland plant community composition and phenological patterns using readily available digital photography at a bog and a fen in Alberta, Canada. Our objectives were to: 1) compare the understory vegetation on seismic lines with those in adjacent undisturbed peatlands using two phenological metrics (green and red chromatic coordinates); 2) evaluate if vegetation greenness is directly related to vegetation community composition, and 3) determine whether plot-scale greenness predicts plant productivity. We found that disturbed peatlands have an earlier seasonal peak (maximum greenness) compared to undisturbed areas, and vegetation communities had a stronger relationship to greenness and gross primary production (GPP) at disturbed sites relative to undisturbed sites. This change in understory vegetation results in greater CO2; uptake in disturbed sites. We demonstrate an easy-to-use application of digital photography that successfully quantifies phenological changes in boreal peatland vegetation. This non-destructive method for understanding vegetation phenology eliminated the need for fixed infrastructure and allowed us to sample more plots and study sites while allowing for repeated measures in the future. As boreal landscapes continue to be disturbed by linear disturbances, understanding the magnitude and mechanisms of vegetation and phenology changes is the first step toward predicting carbon cycling changes across broad spatial scales.