This article has been updated


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1.

    et al. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment: Scientific Report 21–60 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

  2. 2.

    et al. Circumpolar Arctic tundra vegetation change is linked to sea ice decline. Earth Int. 14, 1–20 (2010).

  3. 3.

    , & Trends in vegetation NDVI from 1 km AVHRR data over Canada for the period 1985–2006. Int. J. Remote Sens. 30, 149–168 (2009).

  4. 4.

    et al. Climate change and arctic ecosystems: 1. Vegetation changes north of 55 N between the last glacial maximum, mid-Holocene, and present. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 8170 (2003).

  5. 5.

    et al. Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change. Nature Clim. Change 2, 111–115 (2012).

  6. 6.

    et al. Plant community responses to experimental warming across the tundra biome. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 1342–1346 (2006).

  7. 7.

    et al. Global assessment of experimental climate warming on tundra vegetation: Heterogeneity over space and time. Ecol. Lett. 15, 164–175 (2012).

  8. 8.

    et al. An extended AVHRR 8-km NDVI data set compatible with MODIS and SPOT vegetation NDVI data. Int. J. Remote Sens. 26, 4485–5598 (2005).

  9. 9.

    , & Climate change—increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411, 546–547 (2001).

  10. 10.

    , & Unexpected impacts of climate change on alpine vegetation. Front. Ecol. Environ. 5, 360–364 (2007).

  11. 11.

    & Responses of High Arctic wet sedge tundra to climate warming since 1980. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 276–287 (2011).

  12. 12.

    et al. Shrub expansion in tundra ecosystems: Dynamics, impacts and research priorities. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 045509 (2011).

  13. 13.

    et al. Multi-decadal changes in tundra environments and ecosystems: Synthesis of the International Polar Year-Back to the Future project (IPY-BTF). Ambio 40, 705–716 (2011).

  14. 14.

    et al. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science 333, 1024–1026 (2011).

  15. 15.

    , & The relationship between tussock tundra spectral reflectance properties and biomass and vegetation composition. Int. J. Remote Sens. 14, 1861–1874 (1993).

  16. 16.

    , , , & Functional convergence in regulation of net CO2 flux in heterogeneous tundra landscapes in Alaska and Sweden. J. Ecol. 95, 802–817 (2007).

  17. 17.

    , & Biotic controls over spectral reflectance of arctic tundra vegetation. Int. J. Remote Sens. 26, 2391–2405 (2005).

  18. 18.

    et al. Global negative vegetation feedback to climate warming responses of leaf litter decomposition rates in cold biomes. Ecol. Lett. 10, 619–627 (2007).

  19. 19.

    et al. Arctic warming on two continents has consistent negative effects on lichen diversity and mixed effects on bryophyte diversity. Glob. Change Biol. 18, 1096–1107 (2012).

  20. 20.

    et al. Global change and Arctic ecosystems: Is lichen decline a function of increases in vascular plant biomass. J. Ecol. 89, 984–994 (2001).

  21. 21.

    & Ecology of alpine snowbeds and the impact of global change. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 39, 34–43 (2007).

  22. 22.

    Are plant growth-form-based classifications useful in predicting northern ecosystem carbon cycling feedbacks to climate change? J. Ecol. 95, 1167–1180 (2007).

  23. 23.

    et al. Ecosystem feedbacks and cascade processes: Understanding their role in the responses of Arctic and alpine ecosystems to environmental change. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 1153–1172 (2009).

  24. 24.

    & Environment sensitivity of ecotypes as a potential influence on primary productivity. Am. Nat. 136, 126–131 (1990).

  25. 25.

    , & Vegetation responses in Alaskan Arctic tundra after 8 years of a summer warming and winter snow manipulation experiment. Glob. Change Biol. 11, 537–552 (2005).

  26. 26.

    , , , & Responses of Arctic tundra to experimental and observed changes in climate. Ecology 76, 694–711 (1995).

  27. 27.

    et al. Herbivores inhibit climate-driven shrub expansion on the tundra. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 2681–2693 (2009).

  28. 28.

    IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Soloman, S. et. al) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  29. 29.

    et al. Are treelines advancing? A global meta-analysis of treeline response to climate warming. Ecol. Lett. 12, 1040–1049 (2009).

  30. 30.

    et al. Arctic Species Trend Index 2010: Tracking Trends in Arctic Wildlife CAFF CBMP Report No. 20 (CAFF International Secretariat, 2010).

  31. 31.

    University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit CRU Time Series High Resolution Gridded Datasets (NCAS British Atmospheric Data Centre, 2008); available at .

  32. 32.

    et al. Regression modelling of correlated data in ecology: Subject-specific and population averaged response patterns. J. Appl. Ecol. 46, 1018–1025 (2009).

Download references


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


  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


  1. Search for Sarah C. Elmendorf in:

  2. Search for Gregory H. R. Henry in:

  3. Search for Robert D. Hollister in:

  4. Search for Robert G. Björk in:

  5. Search for Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe in:

  6. Search for Elisabeth J. Cooper in:

  7. Search for Johannes H. C. Cornelissen in:

  8. Search for Thomas A. Day in:

  9. Search for Ellen Dorrepaal in:

  10. Search for Tatiana G. Elumeeva in:

  11. Search for Mike Gill in:

  12. Search for William A. Gould in:

  13. Search for John Harte in:

  14. Search for David S. Hik in:

  15. Search for Annika Hofgaard in:

  16. Search for David R. Johnson in:

  17. Search for Jill F. Johnstone in:

  18. Search for Ingibjörg Svala Jónsdóttir in:

  19. Search for Janet C. Jorgenson in:

  20. Search for Kari Klanderud in:

  21. Search for Julia A. Klein in:

  22. Search for Saewan Koh in:

  23. Search for Gaku Kudo in:

  24. Search for Mark Lara in:

  25. Search for Esther Lévesque in:

  26. Search for Borgthor Magnússon in:

  27. Search for Jeremy L. May in:

  28. Search for Joel A. Mercado-Dı´az in:

  29. Search for Anders Michelsen in:

  30. Search for Ulf Molau in:

  31. Search for Isla H. Myers-Smith in:

  32. Search for Steven F. Oberbauer in:

  33. Search for Vladimir G. Onipchenko in:

  34. Search for Christian Rixen in:

  35. Search for Niels Martin Schmidt in:

  36. Search for Gaius R. Shaver in:

  37. Search for Marko J. Spasojevic in:

  38. Search for Þóra Ellen Þórhallsdóttir in:

  39. Search for Anne Tolvanen in:

  40. Search for Tiffany Troxler in:

  41. Search for Craig E. Tweedie in:

  42. Search for Sandra Villareal in:

  43. Search for Carl-Henrik Wahren in:

  44. Search for Xanthe Walker in:

  45. Search for Patrick J. Webber in:

  46. Search for Jeffrey M. Welker in:

  47. Search for Sonja Wipf in:


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.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading