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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $4.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Tape, K., Sturm, M. & Racine, C. The evidence for shrub expansion in Northern Alaska and the Pan-Arctic. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 686–702 (2006).
Goetz, S. J. et al. in Eurasian Arctic Land Cover and Land Use in a Changing Climate (eds Gutman, G. & Reissell, A.) 9–36 (Springer, 2011).
Elmendorf, S. C. et al. Plot-scale evidence of tundra vegetation change and links to recent summer warming. Nature Clim. Change 2, 453–457 (2012).
Macias-Fauria, M., Forbes, B. C., Zetterberg, P. & Kumpula, T. Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for structurally novel ecosystems. Nature Clim. Change 2, 613–618 (2012).
Chapin, F. S. et al. Role of land-surface changes in Arctic summer warming. Science 310, 657–660 (2005).
Lawrence, D. M. & Swenson, S. C. Permafrost response to increasing Arctic shrub abundance depends on the relative influence of shrubs on local soil cooling versus large-scale climate warming. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 045504 (2011).
Blok, D. et al. Shrub expansion may reduce summer permafrost thaw in Siberian tundra. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1296–1305 (2010).
Swann, A. L., Fung, I. Y., Levis, S., Bonan, G. B. & Doney, S. C. Changes in Arctic vegetation amplify high-latitude warming through the greenhouse effect. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 1295–1300 (2010).
Schuur, E. A. G. et al. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra. Nature 459, 556–559 (2009).
Loranty, M. M. & Goetz, S. J. Shrub expansion and climate feedbacks in Arctic tundra. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 011005 (2012).
Bonfils, C. J. W. et al. On the influence of shrub height and expansion on northern high latitude climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 015503 (2012).
IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Peterson, A. T. et al. Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011).
Chapin, F. S. III, Bret-Harte, M. S., Hobbie, S. E. & Zhong, H. Plant functional types as predictors of transient responses of arctic vegetation to global change. J. Veg. Sci. 7, 347–358 (1996).
Euskirchen, E. S., McGuire, A. D., Chapin, F. S., Yi, S. & Thompson, C. C. Changes in vegetation in Northern Alaska under scenarios of climate Change, 2003–2100: Implications for climate feedbacks. Ecol. Appl. 19, 1022–1043 (2009).
Wolf, A., Callaghan, T. & Larson, K. Future changes in vegetation and ecosystem function of the Barents Region. Climatic Change 87, 51–73 (2008).
Epstein, H. E., Walker, M. D., Chapin, F. S. & Starfield, A. M. A transient, nutrient-based model of arctic plant community response to climatic warming. Ecol. Appl. 10, 824–841 (2000).
Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate–carbon cycle feedback analysis: Results from the C4MIP model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).
McGuire, A. D. et al. Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change. Ecol. Monogr. 79, 523–555 (2009).
Alsos, I. G. et al. Frequent long-distance plant colonization in the changing arctic. Science 316, 1606–1609 (2007).
Pearson, R. G. Climate change and the migration capacity of species. Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 111–113 (2006).
Racine, C., Jandt, R., Meyers, C. & Dennis, J. Tundra fire and vegetation change along a hillslope on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska, USA. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 36, 1–10 (2004).
Schuur, E. A. G., Crummer, K. G., Vogel, J. G. & Mack, M. C. Plant species composition and productivity following permafrost thaw and thermokarst in Alaskan tundra. Ecosystems 10, 280–292 (2007).
Forchhammer, M. C., Post, E., Stenseth, N. C. & Boertmann, D. M. Long-term responses in arctic ungulate dynamics to changes in climatic and trophic processes. Popul. Ecol. 44, 113–120 (2002).
Post, E. et al. Ecological dynamics across the arctic associated with recent climate change. Science 325, 1355–1358 (2009).
Zöckler, C. Migratory bird species as indicators for the state of the environment. Biodiversity 6, 7–13 (2005).
Sturm, M. et al. Winter biological processes could help convert Arctic tundra to shrubland. BioScience 55, 17 (2005).
Fletcher, C. G., Zhao, H., Kushner, P. J. & Fernandes, R. Using models and satellite observations to evaluate the strength of snow albedo feedback. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D11117 (2012).
Zhang, K., Kimball, J. S., Kim, Y. & McDonald, K. C. Changing freeze-thaw seasons in northern high latitudes and associated influences on evapotranspiration. Hydrol. Process. 25, 4142–4151 (2011).
Walker, D. A. et al. The Circumpolar Arctic vegetation map. J. Veg. Sci. 16, 267–282 (2005).
We thank G. Arnesen, J. Elith, A. Elvebakk, P. J. Ersts, N. Horning, M. C. Mack, J. Silverman and Y. Ryu. Supported by NSF grants IPY 0732948 to R.G.P., IPY 0732954 to S.J.G., and Expeditions 0832782 to T.D.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Pearson, R., Phillips, S., Loranty, M. et al. Shifts in Arctic vegetation and associated feedbacks under climate change. Nature Clim Change 3, 673–677 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1858
Dynamics of Vegetation Change and Its Relationship with Nature and Human Activities — A Case Study of Poyang Lake Basin, China
Journal of Sustainable Forestry (2021)
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021)
Remote Sensing (2021)
Current Climate Change Reports (2021)
Habitat selection by Dall’s sheep is influenced by multiple factors including direct and indirect climate effects
PLOS ONE (2021)