Warming Turns Tundra to Forest (Which Increases Warming)

In the last few decades, shrubs in the Arctic tundra have transformed themselves into trees as a result of the warming Arctic climate, at a speed and magnitude that is far greater than scientists had ever anticipated. If this continues and is replicated across the whole of the Arctic tundra, it would significantly accelerate global warming.

A report published in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “Eurasian Arctic greening reveals teleconnections and the potential for novel ecosystems” detailed research led by scientists from the University of Lapland, Finland, and Oxford University England. The scientists investigated an area of around 100,000 square kilometres known as the northwestern Eurasian tundra, which stretches from western Sibera to Finland. Surveys of the vegetation, using data from satellite imaging, fieldwork, and expert observations from indigenous reindeer herders, showed that, in 8-15% of the area, willow (Salix) and alder (Alnus) plants have grown into trees over 2 metres in height in the last 30-40 years.

Models made previous to this research had indicated that the potential impact of forestation in the Arctic tundra could increase Arctic warming by an extra 1 to 2 degrees Celsius by the late 21st Century.

The northernmost foothills of the Polar Ural mountains on the southern Yamal Peninsula in West Siberia, Russia: willow thickets have a greyish metallic canopy and stand out in the forefront and background, located mostly in concave areas. Alder, with a dark green canopy, stands out clearly against both willow and the other tundra vegetation.

“It’s a big surprise that these plants are reacting in this way,” said Dr Marc Macias-Fauria of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and the Oxford Martin School, first author of the paper. “Previously people had thought that the tundra might be colonised by trees from the boreal forest to the south as the Arctic climate warms, a process that would take centuries. But what we’ve found is that the shrubs that are already there are transforming into trees in just a few decades.”

“The speed and magnitude of the observed change is far greater than we expected,” said Professor Bruce Forbes of the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, corresponding author of the paper.

The increase to the Arctic warming comes as the increase in forest decreases the albedo effect in the region. During the Arctic spring and autumn, much of the flora is hidden underneath a blanket of white, light-reflecting snow. However, trees are tall enough to break the snow cover and are dark enough to start absorbing the light (i.e., heat). This increased absorption of the Sun’s radiation, combined with microclimates created by forested areas, adds to global warming: making an already-warming climate warm even more rapidly.

“Of course this is just one small part of the vast Arctic tundra and an area that is already warmer than the rest of the Arctic, probably due to the influence of warm air from the Gulf Stream,” said Dr Macias-Fauria. “However, this area does seem to be a bellwether for the rest of the region, it can show us what is likely to happen to the rest of the Arctic in the near future if these warming trends continue.”

Source: Oxford University
Image Source: BC Forbes via Oxford University

12 thoughts on “Warming Turns Tundra to Forest (Which Increases Warming)”

  1. Fascinating article.

    Reminds me of something that happened a few years ago. Two acquaintances of mine, who didn’t know each other, had long denied global warming, even purely natural. They also both happened to be oil drillers and at about the same time, got contracts on Alaska’s North Slope.

    They came back shaken, as neither had been to any place like that for some. Each said that upon arrival, both field and upstairs management folks told them they were deeply worried about the thawing permafrost and tundra, as the thawing could make the land unstable for their oil derricks, which conceivably could unexpectedly (and disastrously, at least potentially) collapse.

    They had decided there was something serious going on, after all, and that humans are contributing to it — a complete reversal of the previous views of belittling and mocking anyone who expressed the slightest concern, with them resorting to ad hominem attacks, dragging in Al Gore at every turn, quoting noted “climate experts” such as Oklahoma’s Senator Inhofe and Texas’ Representative Joe Barton. But they sure had changed, and defended their new views to their oilfield buddies, sometimes heatedly. And yes, as a guy who knows a lot of them, I did witness evidence of their major shift.

    1. interesting story. very interesting one. yeah, guess as the problem directly touches more and more people, we will finally see that. sad they can’t do some abstract thinking first… but i guess it’s harder when your job is contributing to the problem.

  2. Mr. Hill, please consider self publishing your book. My brother-in-law has been very successful and now earns $300+ USD per month from books he has self-published on Amazon. Best of luck.

    1. dmoser – Jesus was the biggest liberal the world ever knew. Imagine some guy saying to love your enemy, not to judge anyone, and to do good to everyone; would you call him a conservative? People get his credo twisted thanks to hateful speeches given by self-righteous ideologues over the centuries trying to capitalize on his popularity, oh and religious people belittling his message of universal love.

  3. When I first read the title I thought: “That’s a good development, it will balance the deforestation” but then I was sad to learn that it will increase the global warming. Another warning from the Mother Earth!

  4. Theresa Dudley

    Rarely do I comment on articles that I read, but it was the ‘About Joshua S Hill’ at the bottom of this article that made me want to write. ..
    I am impressed . . . you sound like a fine young man, and I wish you the best of luck in all that you do. . .
    I am not ‘flirting’ – I am a 64 year old mother and grandmother. . I also think ‘we’ are directing this earth into disaster. . . I worry for my own children and grandchildren.
    This is just to say ‘thank you’ for being who you are. Good Luck!!

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