Tundra vegetation productivity and composition are responding rapidly to climatic changes in the Arctic. These changes can, in turn, mitigate or amplify permafrost thaw. In this Review, we synthesize remotely sensed and field-observed vegetation change across the tundra biome, and outline how these shifts could influence permafrost thaw. Permafrost ice content appears to be an important control on local vegetation changes; woody vegetation generally increases in ice-poor uplands, whereas replacement of woody vegetation by (aquatic) graminoids following abrupt permafrost thaw is more frequent in ice-rich Arctic lowlands. These locally observed vegetation changes contribute to regional satellite-observed greening trends, although the interpretation of greening and browning is complicated. Increases in vegetation cover and height generally mitigate permafrost thaw in summer, yet, increase annual soil temperatures through snow-related winter soil warming effects. Strong vegetation–soil feedbacks currently alleviate the consequences of thaw-related disturbances. However, if the increasing scale and frequency of disturbances in a warming Arctic exceeds the capacity for vegetation and permafrost recovery, changes to Arctic ecosystems could be irreversible. To better disentangle vegetation–soil–permafrost interactions, ecological field studies remain crucial, but require better integration with geophysical assessments.
Expansion of shrub vegetation is, by far, the most reported field-observed vegetation change in the Arctic tundra region, contributing to field-observed and satellite-observed Arctic greening.
Spectral greening trends are sensitive to the spatial and temporal scales over which they are observed; ground-truthing remains indispensable for their interpretation.
Tree and shrub establishment occur primarily in warming upland regions on ice-poor permafrost, whereas abrupt thaw followed by vegetation recovery is relatively abundant on lowlands with ice-rich permafrost.
Geographical coverage of field studies is concentrated in western North America, leaving large areas of Arctic tundra in High Arctic Canada and Siberia poorly characterized.
Increasing vegetation cover and height affect soil thermal regimes, generally warming in winter and cooling in summer. Integration of ecological and geophysical knowledge is necessary to assess long-term net effects.
While disturbances of vegetation and permafrost can be compensated by strong internal soil–vegetation feedbacks, tipping points and large-scale ecosystem collapse could occur once disturbances exceed capacity for recovery.
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This publication is part of the Netherlands Polar Programme (ALWPP.2016.008), financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). M.T.J. acknowledges financial support from NSF grant 1820883 and M.J.L. support from NSF-EnvE (1928048) and DOE-TES (DE-SC0021094).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map: https://www.geobotany.uaf.edu/cavm
Plant species with an erect, grass-like growth form, encompassing both true grasses and sedges.
- Active layer
The top layer of soil that overlies permafrost, thawing in summer and refreezing in winter.
- Spectral greening
Increasing (positive) trends in the NDVI, or other satellite-derived vegetation indices.
- Normalized difference vegetation index
(NDVI). A spectral vegetation index that is sensitive to the green biomass, generally correlating with plant properties such as leaf area index.
- Spectral browning
Decreasing (negative) trends in the NDVI.
- Dwarf shrubs
Low-statured shrubs, generally less than 1 m tall, mostly evergreen ericaceous shrubs, but also deciduous shrub species, such as Betula nana.
- Tall shrubs
Erect shrubs, generally 2 m or taller, often growing on more fertile sites, such as flood plains. Species comprise mostly deciduous species, such as Salix and Alnus.
Gradual conversion of forest or shrubland to peatlands.
- Yedoma deposits
Wind-blown deposits from the last ice age, often rich in ground ice and soil organic matter.
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Heijmans, M.M.P.D., Magnússon, R.Í., Lara, M.J. et al. Tundra vegetation change and impacts on permafrost. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 68–84 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00233-0
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