Shifts in Arctic vegetation and associated feedbacks under climate change Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • Climate warming has led to changes in the composition, density and distribution of Arctic vegetation in recent decades(1-4). These changes cause multiple opposing feedbacks between the biosphere and atmosphere(5-9), the relative magnitudes of which will have globally significant consequences but are unknown at a pan-Arctic scale(10). 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.

publication date

  • July 2013