This article has been updated


Rapid climate warming in the tundra biome has been linked to increasing shrub dominance1,2,3,4. Shrub expansion can modify climate by altering surface albedo, energy and water balance, and permafrost2,5,6,7,8, yet the drivers of shrub growth remain poorly understood. Dendroecological data consisting of multi-decadal time series of annual shrub growth provide an underused resource to explore climate–growth relationships. Here, we analyse circumpolar data from 37 Arctic and alpine sites in 9 countries, including 25 species, and 42,000 annual growth records from 1,821 individuals. Our analyses demonstrate that the sensitivity of shrub growth to climate was: (1) heterogeneous, with European sites showing greater summer temperature sensitivity than North American sites, and (2) higher at sites with greater soil moisture and for taller shrubs (for example, alders and willows) growing at their northern or upper elevational range edges. Across latitude, climate sensitivity of growth was greatest at the boundary between the Low and High Arctic, where permafrost is thawing4 and most of the global permafrost soil carbon pool is stored9. The observed variation in climate–shrub growth relationships should be incorporated into Earth system models to improve future projections of climate change impacts across the tundra biome.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Change history

  • 06 August 2015

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the second affiliation for Martin Hallinger was missing: 7Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7044, 75007 Uppsala, Sweden. The remaining affiliations have been renumbered.   In the Acknowledgements, the following information should have been included for M.H.: ‘..., EU ATANS Grant FP6506004 and the scholarship programme of the German Federal Environment Foundation (no. 20008/983) (M.H.)’. These errors have been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


  1. 1.

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

  2. 2.

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

  3. 3.

    , & The evidence for shrub expansion in Northern Alaska and the Pan-Arctic. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 686–702 (2006).

  4. 4.

    Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  5. 5.

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

  6. 6.

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

  7. 7.

    et al. Trajectory of the Arctic as an integrated system. Ecol. Appl. 23, 1837–1868 (2013).

  8. 8.

    et al. Shifts in Arctic vegetation and associated feedbacks under climate change. Nature Clim. Change 3, 673–677 (2013).

  9. 9.

    et al. The Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database: Spatially distributed datasets of soil coverage and soil carbon storage in the northern permafrost regions. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 5, 3–13 (2013).

  10. 10.

    , , & Landscape heterogeneity of shrub expansion in Arctic Alaska. Ecosystems 15, 711–724 (2012).

  11. 11.

    Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

    , & Russian Arctic warming and ‘greening’ are closely tracked by tundra shrub willows. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1542–1554 (2010).

  14. 14.

    , , & Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for structurally novel ecosystems. Nature Clim. Change 2, 613–618 (2012).

  15. 15.

    , & Increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411, 546–547 (2001).

  16. 16.

    , & Establishing a missing link: Warm summers and winter snow cover promote shrub expansion into alpine tundra in Scandinavia. New Phytol. 186, 890–899 (2010).

  17. 17.

    et al. What are the main climate drivers for shrub growth in Northeastern Siberian tundra? Biogeosciences 8, 1169–1179 (2011).

  18. 18.

    et al. No divergence in Cassiope tetragona: Persistence of growth response along a latitudinal temperature gradient and under multi-year experimental warming. Ann. Bot. 110, 653–665 (2012).

  19. 19.

    et al. Plant functional types in Earth system models: Past experiences and future directions for application of dynamic vegetation models in high-latitude ecosystems. Ann. Bot. 114, 1–16 (2014).

  20. 20.

    , & Climate determines upper, but not lower, altitudinal range limits of Pacific Northwest conifers. Ecology 92, 1323–1331 (2011).

  21. 21.

    , , , & How will biotic interactions influence climate change-induced range shifts? Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1297, 112–125 (2013).

  22. 22.

    Geographical Ecology: Patterns in the Distribution of Species (Princeton Univ. Press, 1972).

  23. 23.

    Evidence for the existence of three primary strategies in plants and its relevance to ecological and evolutionary theory. Am. Nat. 111, 1169–1194 (1977).

  24. 24.

    et al. Investigating soil moisture–climate interactions in a changing climate: A review. Earth Sci. Rev. 99, 125–161 (2010).

  25. 25.

    & Changing climate sensitivity of black spruce (Picea mariana Mill.) in a peatland-forest landscape in Interior Alaska. Dendrochronologia 25, 167–175 (2008).

  26. 26.

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

  27. 27.

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

  28. 28.

    et al. Changes in forest productivity across Alaska consistent with biome shift. Ecol. Lett. 14, 373–379 (2011).

  29. 29.

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

  30. 30.

    , & Primary and secondary stem growth in Arctic shrubs: Implications for community response to environmental change. J. Ecol. 90, 251–267 (2002).

Download references


We thank the many field and laboratory assistants for help with data collection, and the governments, parks, field stations and local and indigenous people for the opportunity to conduct research on their land. Financial support was provided by the International Arctic Science Committee (All), German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig (sTUNDRA working group), the EnviroNorth CREATE grant (I.H.M.-S.), International Polar Year Programs of the Government of Canada, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Northern Scientific Training Program (I.H.M.-S., D.S.H., M.V., S.A.R., N.B.-L., E.L., A.J.T., L.H., L.S.C., T.C.L.), INTERACT (262693), 7th Framework Programme, Virtual Institute ICLEA of the Helmholtz Foundation (M.W. and A.Buras), Wageningen University and Research Center, Darwin Center for Biogeosciences, Danish National Research Foundation (CENPERM DNRF100) (D.B.), Swedish Polar Secretariat (S.A.R.), Academy of Finland, Nordic Centre of Excellence TUNDRA, NASA Land Cover/Land-Use Change Program (B.C.F. and M.M.-F.), Natural Environment Research Council Independent Research Fellowship (NE/L011859/1) (M.M.-F.), Research Council of Norway (Project 212897) (J.D.M.S.), Fonds de recherche du Québec: Nature et technologies (N.B.-L., E.L., M.V.) and Centre d’études Nordiques, ArcticNet—a network of centres of excellence (S.A.R., N.B.-L., E.L., A.J.T., L.H., L.S.C.), Polar Continental Shelf Program (S.A.R., N.B.-L., E.L.), Canada Foundation for Innovation (T.C.L.), WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF (to C.R., M.A.D., J.A.W., S.Wipf), Knud Højgaard Charity Foundation (N.M.S.), The Northern Worlds initiative of the National Museum of Denmark (C.B.), IPY-NWO (project 851.40.051) (S.Weijers), Polish National Science Centre (project N306 009139) (A.Buchwal), Virtual Institute ICLEA of the Helmholtz Foundation (A.Buras), National Science Foundation (ARC-0806506) (A.T.N.), University of Zurich Research Priority Program ‘Global Change and Biodiversity’ (G.S.-S.), Woods Hole Research Center (K.C.G.), The Research Council of Norway (V.R.), EU ATANS Grant FP6506004 and the scholarship programme of the German Federal Environment Foundation (no. 20008/983) (M.H.).

Author information


  1. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FF, UK

    • Isla H. Myers-Smith
  2. National Ecological Observatory Network, 1685 38th Street, Suite 100 Boulder, Colorado 80301, USA

    • Sarah C. Elmendorf
  3. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Sarah C. Elmendorf
  4. European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC), Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES), Forest Resources and Climate Unit, Via Enrico Fermi 2749 21027 Ispra VA, Italy

    • Pieter S. A. Beck
  5. Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Pieter S. A. Beck
    •  & Kevin C. Guay
  6. Institute of Botany and Landscape Ecology, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University Greifswald, D-17487 Greifswald, Germany

    • Martin Wilmking
    • , Martin Hallinger
    •  & Allan Buras
  7. Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7044, 75007 Uppsala, Sweden

    • Martin Hallinger
  8. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Daan Blok
  9. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7000, USA

    • Ken D. Tape
  10. Department of Geography, 213 Old Mill Building, 94 University Place, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA

    • Shelly A. Rayback
  11. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Marc Macias-Fauria
  12. Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Box 122 FI-96101 Rovaniemi, Finland

    • Bruce C. Forbes
  13. University Museum, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway

    • James D. M. Speed
  14. Département des Sciences de l’environnement et Centre d’études nordiques, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, C.P. 500, Trois-Rivières Québec G9A 5H7, Canada

    • Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe
    •  & Esther Lévesque
  15. Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, 1984 West Mall Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2, Canada

    • Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe
  16. WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Fluelastrasse 11 CH-7260 Davos Dorf, Switzerland

    • Christian Rixen
    • , Melissa A. Dawes
    • , Julia A. Wheeler
    •  & Sonja Wipf
  17. Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, Frederiksborgvej 399 4000 Roskilde, Denmark

    • Niels Martin Schmidt
  18. National Museum of Denmark, Frederiksholms Kanal 12 1220 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Claudia Baittinger
  19. School of Environmental Studies, PO Box 3060 STN CSC, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3R4, Canada

    • Andrew J. Trant
    •  & Trevor C. Lantz
  20. Department of Biology, Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland A1B 3X9, Canada

    • Andrew J. Trant
    •  & Laura Siegwart Collier
  21. Climatology and Landscape Ecology, Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Meckenheimer Allee 166 D-53115 Bonn, Germany

    • Luise Hermanutz
    • , Stef Weijers
    •  & Agata Buchwal
  22. Department of Plant & Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Rolighedsvej 21 1958 Frederiksberg C, Denmark

    • Rasmus Halfdan Jørgensen
  23. Institute of Geoecology and Geoinformation, Adam Mickiewicz University, Dziegielowa 27, 61-680 Poznan, Poland

  24. Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, 810 Eller O&M Building, Mailstop 3147 TAMU, College Station Texas 77843-3147, USA

    • Adam T. Naito
  25. Norwegian Polar Institute, Fram Centre, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway

    • Virve Ravolainen
  26. Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 190 8057 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Gabriela Schaepman-Strub
  27. University of Basel, Institute of Botany, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland

    • Julia A. Wheeler
  28. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada

    • David S. Hik
  29. Département de biologie, Faculté des Sciences, 2500, boulevard de l’Université, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Québec J1K 2R1, Canada

    • Mark Vellend


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

  2. Search for Sarah C. Elmendorf in:

  3. Search for Pieter S. A. Beck in:

  4. Search for Martin Wilmking in:

  5. Search for Martin Hallinger in:

  6. Search for Daan Blok in:

  7. Search for Ken D. Tape in:

  8. Search for Shelly A. Rayback in:

  9. Search for Marc Macias-Fauria in:

  10. Search for Bruce C. Forbes in:

  11. Search for James D. M. Speed in:

  12. Search for Noémie Boulanger-Lapointe in:

  13. Search for Christian Rixen in:

  14. Search for Esther Lévesque in:

  15. Search for Niels Martin Schmidt in:

  16. Search for Claudia Baittinger in:

  17. Search for Andrew J. Trant in:

  18. Search for Luise Hermanutz in:

  19. Search for Laura Siegwart Collier in:

  20. Search for Melissa A. Dawes in:

  21. Search for Trevor C. Lantz in:

  22. Search for Stef Weijers in:

  23. Search for Rasmus Halfdan Jørgensen in:

  24. Search for Agata Buchwal in:

  25. Search for Allan Buras in:

  26. Search for Adam T. Naito in:

  27. Search for Virve Ravolainen in:

  28. Search for Gabriela Schaepman-Strub in:

  29. Search for Julia A. Wheeler in:

  30. Search for Sonja Wipf in:

  31. Search for Kevin C. Guay in:

  32. Search for David S. Hik in:

  33. Search for Mark Vellend in:


All authors designed the study, collected or processed data and assisted in writing the paper; I.H.M.-S. and M.V. took the lead in writing the paper; I.H.M.-S. analysed the data with assistance from S.C.E.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Isla H. Myers-Smith.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading