Shifts in Arctic vegetation and associated feedbacks under climate change

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

Climate warming has led to changes in the composition, density and distribution of Arctic vegetation in recent decades1, 2, 3, 4. These changes cause multiple opposing feedbacks between the biosphere and atmosphere5, 6, 7, 8, 9, the relative magnitudes of which will have globally significant consequences but are unknown at a pan-Arctic scale10. The precise nature of Arctic vegetation change under future warming will strongly influence climate feedbacks, yet Earth system modelling studies have so far assumed arbitrary increases in shrubs (for example, +20%; refs 6, 11), highlighting the need for predictions of future vegetation distribution shifts. Here we show, using climate scenarios for the 2050s and models that utilize statistical associations between vegetation and climate, the potential for extremely widespread redistribution of vegetation across the Arctic. We predict that at least half of vegetated areas will shift to a different physiognomic class, and woody cover will increase by as much as 52%. By incorporating observed relationships between vegetation and albedo, evapotranspiration and biomass, we show that vegetation distribution shifts will result in an overall positive feedback to climate that is likely to cause greater warming than has previously been predicted. Such extensive changes to Arctic vegetation will have implications for climate, wildlife and ecosystem services.

At a glance


  1. Observed and predicted distributions of vegetation.
    Figure 1: Observed and predicted distributions of vegetation.

    Observed distributions of vegetation classes (left) and predicted distributions for the 2050s based on an equilibrium dispersal scenario (unrestricted colonization of trees), Random Forest model, HadCM3 AOGCM, and A2a emissions scenario (right). a, Siberia. b, Alaska. c, Western Canada. Modelled vegetation classes are overlaid on a physical terrain map (US National Park Service). Projection: Lambert azimuthal equal area.

  2. Predicted changes in area by vegetation class for the 2050s.
    Figure 2: Predicted changes in area by vegetation class for the 2050s.

    a, Restricted tree dispersal scenarios. b, Equilibrium scenario (unrestricted colonization of trees). Grey bars show the range of predictions due to alternative machine-learning models, AOGCMs, emissions scenarios and dispersal scenarios. Tree classes are excluded from this figure because they have no present-day coverage within the study region, so relative changes in area cannot be calculated.

  3. Predicted monthly changes in surface net short-wave radiation for the 2050s.
    Figure 3: Predicted monthly changes in surface net short-wave radiation for the 2050s.

    Red shading shows the range of predicted changes in monthly SN across machine-learning models, AOGCMs and emissions scenarios under equilibrium (unrestricted tree dispersal scenario). Blue shading shows the range of predicted changes in monthly SN across machine-learning models, AOGCMs and emissions scenarios under restricted dispersal. Note that changes in SN are driven solely by albedo as incident short-wave radiation is held constant.


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  1. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA

    • Richard G. Pearson &
    • Sarah J. Knight
  2. AT&T Labs-Research, 180 Park Avenue, Florham Park, New Jersey 07932, USA

    • Steven J. Phillips
  3. Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Michael M. Loranty,
    • Pieter S. A. Beck &
    • Scott J. Goetz
  4. Department of Geography, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York 13346, USA

    • Michael M. Loranty
  5. Department of Computer Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA

    • Theodoros Damoulas
  6. Department of Biology, University of York, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • Sarah J. Knight


R.G.P. and S.J.G. conceived the study; R.G.P. analysed data; S.J.P. analysed data and ran Random Forests models; M.M.L. led albedo and evapotranspiration analyses; P.S.A.B. led biomass and SN analyses; T.D. ran multi-kernel Relevance Vector Machines models; S.J.K. ran preliminary analyses; R.G.P., M.M.L. and P.S.A.B. wrote the paper with contributions from all authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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