Vegetation in Arctic Tundra may fuel further climate warming, study suggests

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Researchers have warned through one of the biggest researches of its kind on Arctic Tundra vegetation that significant changes in the region’s ecosystems are not only a symptom of climate change, but they may also end up fueling further warming.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, provides a strong evidence that climate warming is leading to dramatic changes in the Arctic Tundra. Researchers say that their findings will enable scientists to improve models of future changes to tundra ecosystems and the impacts of these changes on the global climate.

Like plants and trees in any region, tundra shrubs act as a barometer of the Arctic environment depicting how the climate of the region has been changing. These shrubs grow when temperatures are warmer and according to researchers, increased shrub growth not only signals at increased temperatures in the region, but also could lead to more warming in tundra ecosystems and for the planet as a whole.

The reason is simple! Taller shrubs prevent snow from reflecting heat from the sun back into space, warming the Earth’s surface. These shrubs can also also influence soil temperatures and thaw permafrost. Further, increased number of shrubs could end up changing the cycling of nutrients and carbon in soil, which in turn affects its decomposition and the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere.

Combine all these factors and you have a scenario where shrubs end up warming up the climate both in the Arctic region as well as global scale.

Shrub species in wet landscapes at mid-latitudes of the Arctic are the most sensitive to climate warming, the study found. These areas are vulnerable to change as they store large amounts of carbon in frozen soil, which could be released by warming and permafrost thaw.

An international team of scientists at 37 sites in nine countries, led by the University of Edinburgh, studied records of shrub growth spanning 60 years by analysing annual growth rings in the plant stems, to explore links between climate and vegetation change.

Dr Isla Myers-Smith, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, who co-ordinated the study, said: “Arctic shrub growth in the tundra is one of the most significant examples on Earth of the effect that climate change is having on ecosystems. Our findings show there is a lot of variation across this landscape. Understanding this should help improve predictions of climate change impacts across the tundra.”