Increased road-building activity in the arctic has the potential to impact adjacent ecosystems. Roads in permafrost regions are often built atop insulative gravel pads that generate dust plumes, altering soil chemistry and ecosystem function of nearby tundra. Here, we measure edaphic and vegetation characteristics along transects of decreasing dust deposition perpendicular to the Dalton Highway in northern Alaska. We quantify the impact of dust deposition on normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), a proxy for aboveground plant biomass. Deposition of calcium carbonate-rich dust declined from 1.625 grams m−2 day−1 immediately adjacent to the road, to negligible levels 625 meters away. Along these transects from the road, we found declines in soil moisture and temperature, thaw depth, shrub height, and foliar nitrogen content, indicating that tundra roads create corridors with edaphic conditions favorable to vascular plant growth. At sites nearest the road, dust deposited on leaf surfaces reduced measured NDVI values by 0.24 by blocking reflectance properties of the underlying leaves. Our findings on the impacts of roads and dust deposition on adjacent tundra may aid planning of future infrastructure projects. We caution that dust deposition may negatively bias NDVI-based estimates of plant biomass, especially where unpaved roads are common.
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