Massive Arctic Greening Within Only A Few Decades? Transformation Could Make The Arctic The Center Of Human Activity

April 2, 2013 in Geology & Climate, Plants

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The Arctic will experience a massive “greening” in the coming decades as a result of rising temperatures and climate change, new research from the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation has found. The research shows that rising temperatures will cause total plant cover area in the Arctic to increase significantly, with wooded areas increasing in size by as much as 50% in only a few decades. This rapid increase in vegetation will result in accelerated warming within the region and also globally.

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“Such widespread redistribution of Arctic vegetation would have impacts that reverberate through the global ecosystem,” said Richard Pearson, primary author of the paper and a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Plant growth in the Arctic has been increasing over the past couple of decades, coinciding very clearly with rising temperatures. Temperatures in the Arctic have been climbing at nearly twice the rate of the global average, for a variety of reasons, and will continue to do so well into the future. For the new research, models were created to “statistically predict the types of plants that could grow under certain temperatures and precipitation. Although it comes with some uncertainty, this type of modeling is a robust way to study the Arctic because the harsh climate limits the range of plants that can grow, making this system simpler to model compared to other regions such as the tropics.”

What the models show, is that a massive redistribution of vegetation throughout the Arctic is possible. With as much as half of all vegetation switching to a different class, and an enormous increase in total tree cover. The researchers say that if you use Siberia as an example, forests could end up hundreds of miles north of where they are now.

“These impacts would extend far beyond the Arctic region,” Pearson said. “For example, some species of birds seasonally migrate from lower latitudes and rely on finding particular polar habitats, such as open space for ground-nesting.”

This rapid greening would greatly decrease the albedo of the region. Which means that, simply put, dark trees reflect much less sunlight that snow and ice do. This would lead to a further increase in the rate of warming in the Arctic.

“By incorporating observed relationships between plants and albedo, 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,” said co-author Scott Goetz, of the Woods Hole Research Center.

The research paper was published on March 31st in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Some things to note with regards to this new research:

With the increasing habitability of the Arctic, and the disappearing sea ice/opening lines of transportation, the Arctic is set to become one of the most important regions in the world. Large stores of valuable oil and natural gas exist in the region, that many of the countries surrounding the Arctic have an interest in. Conflict is possible, perhaps even probable, as the climate there warms, and the extraction of these resources becomes more economical.

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A recent research paper from the University of Iceland that explored some of the ramifications of climate change in the Arctic, found that: With Arctic land temperatures expected to climb by 4-7 degrees Celsius by 2100, much of the world’s populations, agriculture, and infrastructure, will shift northwards. Much of the equatorial world will eventually become nearly uninhabitable, except in thin regions along the coasts. In time, it is likely that the Arctic Ocean and the countries bordering it will become the “center” of the world, featuring the majority of human activity.

How fast this migration towards the Arctic occurs will largely have to do how fast the Arctic becomes “habitable” and how fast some of the more southerly regions become unable to support large human populations. This loss of habitability in southerly regions will likely be as a result of diminishing agricultural productivity/increasing failures, increasing conflict, drought, and desertification. Though it is also likely that the increasing quantities/intensities of extreme weather events, and resource depletion/soil erosion/deforestation will factor in.

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Source: American Museum of Natural History

Image Credits: www.amap.no; University of Iceland; Quaking Aspens via Flickr CC

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