The Greening of the Arctic Tundra
The most inhospitable land in the entire world, the Arctic Tundra, is now undergoing an amazing transformation. Rising temperatures in the Arctic circle has caused changes in vegetation in the last few decades. Plants are growing taller, there is less bare ground devoid of vegetation, and even some shrubs are growing. It is far from being an agricultural breadbasket, but is well on its way to becoming a more lively ecosystem. A recent study from biologists at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden documents the dramatic changes that are occurring.
Their study analyzed data across the Arctic from 1980 to 2010 collected by the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX). Changes in 158 plant communities from 46 locations were observed and their trends were recorded. They found that vascular species (shrubs and plants) have become more prevalent. The cause of the prevalence was linked directly to locally warmer temperatures.
The degree of vegetation change was not uniform throughout the Arctic tundra. Some areas grew more or less depending on factors such as climate zone, soil moisture, and the presence of permafrost.
"The response of different plant groups to rising temperatures often varied with summer ambient temperature, soil moisture content and experimental duration, with shrubs expanding with warming only where the ambient temperature was already high, and grasses expanding mostly in the coldest areas studied," explains Ulf Molau, professor of plant ecology at the University of Gothenburg and for many years a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Northern communities are adapting to their surroundings by taking advantage of the previously barren land. However, new challenges may present themselves like erosion of the newly loosened soil. The land could become so unstable that construction of permanent structures can be made impossible. Plus, melting permafrost is a major producer of greenhouse gases, further exacerbating the warming climate.
Arctic Tundra image via Shutterstock