Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Shifts in Arctic vegetation and associated feedbacks under climate change

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Observed and predicted distributions of vegetation.
Figure 2: Predicted changes in area by vegetation class for the 2050s.
Figure 3: Predicted monthly changes in surface net short-wave radiation for the 2050s.

References

  1. 1

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Chapin, F. S. et al. Role of land-surface changes in Arctic summer warming. Science 310, 657–660 (2005).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Blok, D. et al. Shrub expansion may reduce summer permafrost thaw in Siberian tundra. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1296–1305 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Loranty, M. M. & Goetz, S. J. Shrub expansion and climate feedbacks in Arctic tundra. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 011005 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

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

  13. 13

    Peterson, A. T. et al. Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    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).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Wolf, A., Callaghan, T. & Larson, K. Future changes in vegetation and ecosystem function of the Barents Region. Climatic Change 87, 51–73 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate–carbon cycle feedback analysis: Results from the C4MIP model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    McGuire, A. D. et al. Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change. Ecol. Monogr. 79, 523–555 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Alsos, I. G. et al. Frequent long-distance plant colonization in the changing arctic. Science 316, 1606–1609 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Pearson, R. G. Climate change and the migration capacity of species. Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 111–113 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Post, E. et al. Ecological dynamics across the arctic associated with recent climate change. Science 325, 1355–1358 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Zöckler, C. Migratory bird species as indicators for the state of the environment. Biodiversity 6, 7–13 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Sturm, M. et al. Winter biological processes could help convert Arctic tundra to shrubland. BioScience 55, 17 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Walker, D. A. et al. The Circumpolar Arctic vegetation map. J. Veg. Sci. 16, 267–282 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

R.G.P. and S.J.G. conceived the study; R.G.P. analysed data; S.J.P. analysed data and ran Random Forests models; M.M.L. led albedo and evapotranspiration analyses; P.S.A.B. led biomass and SN analyses; T.D. ran multi-kernel Relevance Vector Machines models; S.J.K. ran preliminary analyses; R.G.P., M.M.L. and P.S.A.B. wrote the paper with contributions from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard G. Pearson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

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

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing