Mapping above- and belowground vegetation traits in the Canadian Rockies and surrounding regions at multiple spatial and temporal scales

This project investigates the vegetation of the Canadian Rockies, focusing on roots and other belowground characteristics which significantly influence ecosystem structure and function. The project will compare vegetation change over time and space using historical and recent photos from the Mountain Legacy Project, a publicly available Canadian research initiative. These photos will be used to map vegetation above the treeline at a resolution never done before, using custom programs at the University of Vancouver.

This information will be combined with current work characterising trends in plant belowground traits in Arctic/ Alpine species. These plant traits, which are important measures of different aspects of ecosystem functioning, vary across species and with environmental factors such as climate and topography. Using the data for key belowground traits, vegetation cover and aboveground traits distributions extracted from the Mountain Legacy Project photos, and freely available remote-sensed on environmental factors, we aim to predict the distribution of key belowground traits in this region of the Rockies. The findings will provide increased understanding of spatial and temporal variation of belowground traits at regional and global scales. We predict that since the early 1900s, above and belowground traits relating to growth will have increased, due to changes in plant community structure. We also predict that the changes in above- and belowground traits will not be uniform and will depend heavily on factors such as topography and soil water. We will also compare regions affected recently by fire and drought to shed light responses to these disturbances. This information would be useful for assessing ecosystem health and informing management decisions in these regions of the Rockies. Understanding of belowground interactions in Arctic and Alpine systems is lacking, and with the majority of plant biomass belowground, changes to belowground functioning in these ecosystems can have large consequences. These environments contain huge stores of carbon, the release of which could have significant implications for climate change feedbacks. As Alpine and Arctic environments share many traits, plant species and endure similar rapid degree of environmental change, this research would increase understanding of belowground responses to change applicable to both systems. Furthermore, the rapid warming experienced in Arctic/Alpine environments provides and insight into future climate change predicted globally. New analytical techniques we aim to develop during this project may be used to investigate environmental change using remote methods across Arctic and Alpine systems. Innovation in this may improve our ability to predict future climate change scenarios in these ecosystems. Increased understanding of belowground ecosystem responses, networking and skills shared throughout the placement will also and create opportunity for further international collaboration and long-term monitoring of these ecosystems. This work could result in publications and contribute to future study in the Canadian Rockies at the University of Victoria.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£7,390 GBP
Start date
30 Sep 2020
1 year 10 months
End date
30 Jul 2022