Evapotranspiration Across Plant Types and Geomorphological Units in Polygonal Arctic Tundra

Plant types and geomorphological location affect evapotranspiration.

The Science

A group of scientists conducted field research over two summers at an Arctic tundra site near Barrow, Alaska, to measure water vapor fluxes (evapotranspiration) from different characteristic plant types, bare soil, and open water, to understand the variations and the controls over these fluxes across the landscape.

The Impact

The research showed that evapotranspiration (ET) from mosses and open water was twice as high as that from lichens and bare ground, and that microtopographic variations in polygonal tundra explained most of this and other spatial variation in evapotranspiration.


Coastal tundra ecosystems are relatively flat, yet they display large spatial variability in ecosystem traits. The microtopographical differences in polygonal geomorphology produce heterogeneity in permafrost depth, soil temperature, soil moisture, soil geochemistry, and plant distribution. Few measurements have been made, however, of how water fluxes vary across polygonal tundra plant types, limiting the ability to understand and model these ecosystems. In this study, the team investigated how plant distribution and geomorphological location affect actual ET. These effects are especially critical in light of the rapid change polygonal tundra systems are experiencing with Arctic warming. At a field site near Barrow, Alaska, USA, scientists investigated the relationships between ET and plant cover in 2014 and 2015. ET was measured at a range of spatial and temporal scales using: (1) an eddy covariance flux tower for continuous landscape-scale monitoring; (2) an automated clear surface chamber over dry vegetation in a fixed location for continuous plot-scale monitoring; and (3) manual measurements with a clear portable chamber in approximately 60 locations across the landscape. The team found that variation in environmental conditions and plant community composition, driven by microtopographical features, has significant influence on ET. Among plant types, ET from moss-covered and inundated areas was more than twice that from other plant types. ET from troughs and low polygonal centers was significantly higher than from high polygonal centers. ET varied seasonally, with peak fluxes of 0.14 mm per h in July. Despite 24 hours of daylight in summer, diurnal fluctuations in incoming solar radiation and plant processes produced a diurnal cycle in ET. Combining the patterns observed with projections for the impact of permafrost degradation on polygonal structure, the suggestion is that microtopographic changes associated with permafrost thaw have the potential to alter tundra ecosystem ET.

Principal Investigator(s)

Naama Raz-Yaseef
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Stan Wullschleger
Oak Ridge National Laboratory


The Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Arctic project is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.


Raz-Yaseef, N., J. Young-Robertson, T. Rahn, V. Sloan, B. Newman, C. Wilson, S.D. Wullschleger, M.S. Torn. “Evapotranspiration across plant types and geomorphological units in polygonal Arctic tundra.” Journal of Hydrology 553, 816–825 (2017). DOI:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2017.08.036