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Plot-scale evidence of tundra vegetation change and links to recent summer warming

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Temperature is increasing at unprecedented rates across most of the tundra biome1. Remote-sensing data indicate that contemporary climate warming has already resulted in increased productivity over much of the Arctic2,3, but plot-based evidence for vegetation transformation is not widespread. We analysed change in tundra vegetation surveyed between 1980 and 2010 in 158 plant communities spread across 46 locations. We found biome-wide trends of increased height of the plant canopy and maximum observed plant height for most vascular growth forms; increased abundance of litter; increased abundance of evergreen, low-growing and tall shrubs; and decreased abundance of bare ground. Intersite comparisons indicated an association between the degree of summer warming and change in vascular plant abundance, with shrubs, forbs and rushes increasing with warming. However, the association was dependent on the climate zone, the moisture regime and the presence of permafrost. Our data provide plot-scale evidence linking changes in vascular plant abundance to local summer warming in widely dispersed tundra locations across the globe.

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Figure 1: Study site locations.
Figure 2: Biome-wide changes in vegetation height and abundance.
Figure 3: Relationship between vegetation change and summer temperature change.

Change history

  • 18 April 2012

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the affiliation for Craig E. Tweedie and Sandra Villareal was incorrect. This has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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We thank innumerable field technicians, graduate and undergraduate assistants for help with data collection, and parks, wildlife refuges, field stations and the local and indigenous people for the opportunity to conduct research on their land. Financial support for the synthesis was provided by the Canadian International Polar Year program and the US National Science Foundation; the field data collection was financially supported by the Australian Research Council, the Department of Sustainability and Environment (Australia), the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, ArcticNet (Canada), Environment Canada, the Northern Scientific Training program (Canada), the Polar Continental Shelf program (Canada), the Yukon Territorial Government (Canada), the Natural Sciences Division of the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, the ATANS grant program (EU), the Academy of Finland, the Icelandic Research Fund, the Environmental Research and Technology Development Fund (Japan), the Ministry of the Environment (Japan), the Dutch Polar program, the Research Council of Norway, the Norwegian Svalbard Society, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the European Commission (Framework 5; Norway), the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning, the US National Science Foundation, the US Long Term Ecological Research program, the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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All authors designed and/or collected data from monitoring studies and assisted in writing the paper; S.C.E., G.H.R.H. and R.D.H. took the lead in writing the paper; S.C.E. analysed the data.

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Correspondence to Sarah C. Elmendorf.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Elmendorf, S., Henry, G., Hollister, R. et al. Plot-scale evidence of tundra vegetation change and links to recent summer warming. Nature Clim Change 2, 453–457 (2012).

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