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Abstract

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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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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, 1984 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2, Canada

    • Sarah C. Elmendorf
    • , Gregory H. R. Henry
    •  & Xanthe Walker
  2. Biology Department, Grand Valley State University, 1 Campus Drive, Allendale, Michigan 49401, USA

    • Robert D. Hollister
    •  & Jeremy L. May
  3. Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 461, SE-405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Robert G. Björk
    •  & Ulf Molau
  4. Département de Chimie-Biologie, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, C.P. 500, Trois-Rivières, Québec G9A 5H7, Canada

    • Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe
    •  & Esther Lévesque
  5. Department of Arctic and Marine Biology, Institute for Biosciences, Fisheries and Economics, University of Tromsø, N-9037 Tromsø, Norway

    • Elisabeth J. Cooper
  6. Department of Systems Ecology, Institute of Ecological Science, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1085, NL-1081 HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Johannes H. C. Cornelissen
    •  & Ellen Dorrepaal
  7. School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-4501, USA

    • Thomas A. Day
  8. Climate Impacts Research Centre, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University, Box 62, S-981 07 Abisko, Sweden

    • Ellen Dorrepaal
  9. Biological Faculty, Department of Geobotany, Moscow State Lomonosov University, 119991 Leninskie Gory 1/12, Moscow, Russia

    • Tatiana G. Elumeeva
    •  & Vladimir G. Onipchenko
  10. Northern Conservation Division, Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, 91780 Alaska Highway, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 5X7, Canada

    • Mike Gill
  11. USDA Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Jardı´n Botánico Sur, 1201 Calle Ceiba, Rı´o Piedras, Puerto Rico 00926-1119, USA

    • William A. Gould
    •  & Joel A. Mercado-Dı´az
  12. Energy and Resources Group, University of California at Berkeley, 310 Barrows Hall, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • John Harte
  13. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada

    • David S. Hik
    • , Saewan Koh
    •  & Isla H. Myers-Smith
  14. Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, NO-7485 Trondheim, Norway

    • Annika Hofgaard
  15. Department of Biology, University of Texas at El Paso, 500 W. University, El Paso, Texas 79968, USA

    • David R. Johnson
    • , Mark Lara
    • , Craig E. Tweedie
    •  & Sandra Villareal
  16. Biology Department, University of Saskatchewan, 112 Science Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7J 5N2, Canada

    • Jill F. Johnstone
    •  & Xanthe Walker
  17. Institute of Biology, University of Iceland, Askja, Sturlugata 7, IS-101 Reykjavik, Iceland

    • Ingibjörg Svala Jónsdóttir
  18. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 101 12th Avenue, Room 236, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701, USA

    • Janet C. Jorgenson
    •  & Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir
  19. Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, PO Box 5003, NO-1432 Ås, Norway

    • Kari Klanderud
  20. Department of Ecosystem Science & Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA

    • Julia A. Klein
  21. Graduate School of Environmental Earth Science, Hokkaido University, Sapporo 060-0810, Hokkaido, Japan

    • Gaku Kudo
  22. Icelandic Institute of Natural History, Urriðaholtsstræti 6-8, 210 Garðabær, Iceland

    • Borgthor Magnússon
  23. Terrestrial Ecology Section, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 2D, DK-1353 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Anders Michelsen
  24. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM) Øster Voldgade 10, DK-1350 Copenhagen, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Anders Michelsen
  25. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, 11200 SW 8th Street, Miami, Florida 33199, USA

    • Steven F. Oberbauer
  26. WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Fluelastrasse 11, 7260 Davos, Switzerland

    • Christian Rixen
    • , Tiffany Troxler
    •  & Sonja Wipf
  27. Department of Arctic Environment, NERI, Aarhus University, Box 358, Frederiksborgvej 399, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark

    • Niels Martin Schmidt
  28. The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Gaius R. Shaver
  29. Department of Environmental Science and Policy, One Shields Avenue, University of California at Davis, Davis, California 95616, USA

    • Marko J. Spasojevic
  30. Finnish Forest Research Institute, Thule Institute, University of Oulu, Kirkkosaarentie 7, 91500 Muhos, Finland

    • Anne Tolvanen
  31. Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, Department of Agricultural Sciences, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Carl-Henrik Wahren
  32. Michigan State University, PO Box 1380, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico 87557, USA

    • Patrick J. Webber
  33. Biology Department, University of Alaska Anchorage, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, USA

    • Jeffrey M. Welker

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sarah C. Elmendorf.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1465

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