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Climate change

Increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic

Abstract

The warming of the Alaskan Arctic during the past 150 years1 has accelerated over the last three decades2 and is expected to increase vegetation productivity in tundra if shrubs become more abundant3,4; indeed, this transition may already be under way according to local plot studies5 and remote sensing6. Here we present evidence for a widespread increase in shrub abundance over more than 320 km2 of Arctic landscape during the past 50 years, based on a comparison of historic and modern aerial photographs. This expansion will alter the partitioning of energy in summer7 and the trapping and distribution of snow in winter8, as well as increasing the amount of carbon stored in a region that is believed to be a net source of carbon dioxide9.

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Correspondence to Matthew Sturm.

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Figure 1: The Ayiyak River (N68° 53′, W152° 31′), showing an increase in the density of shrub patches, the growth of individual shrubs and an expansion of shrubs into areas that were previously shrub-free.
Figure 2

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