Winter roads across subarctic peatlands are increasingly being used to access remote communities and resource development camps, yet relatively little is known on their ability to recover after abandonment. We evaluated the natural recovery of winter roads abandoned within 7 years on peatlands in the Hudson Bay Lowland, Canada. We sampled 5 winter roads of increasing age of abandonment and compared surface elevation, microtopography, active layer thickness, species cover, diversity, and composition between winter road clearances and adjacent undisturbed peatland. No differences in surface elevation and hummock-hollow microtopography were detected between road clearances and adjacent peatlands, but clearances had significantly thinner active layer, which persisted at least 7 years after abandonment. The cover of lichens, bryophytes, and vascular plants returned within 5 years to similar levels as in undisturbed peatlands, although species richness per quadrat remained lower and species composition differed. The limited recovery of black spruce on these peatlands and their slow growth indicates that the full recovery of vegetation structure on these road clearances will take decades. Future research should focus on the restoration of a Sphagnum carpet and on the interactions between a shallower active layer and the revegetation of abandoned winter roads.
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