If melting sea ice and glaciers weren’t enough, now climate change is producing what researchers call a “structurally novel ecosystem” in the northwestern Eurasian tundra. Warmer weather and precipitation changes in the region, which covers western Russia into Finland, has allowed shrubs of willow and alder to grow into sparse forests within just forty years, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The new ecosystem could have global implications as researchers say it is likely to worsen global warming due to a decline in the region’s albedo, i.e. the sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere due to snow cover.
“It’s a big surprise that these plants are reacting in this way,” lead author Marc Macias-Fauria of Oxford University said in a press release. “Previously people had thought that the tundra might be colonized 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 scientists write that the new ecosystem of tree thickets, with stands over two meters high, may be similar to an ecosystem that once existed along the Bering land bridge 12,000 years ago; the very same land bridge that early humans used to cross from Asia and into the Americas for the first time. But today that extinct ecosystem may be returning: using satellite data, fieldwork, and on-the-ground observation by reindeer herders, the scientists believe the open woodland ecosystem now covers about 8-15 percent of the northwestern Eurasian tundra.
“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,” explains Macias-Fauria. “However, this area does seem to be a bellwether for the rest of the region.”
One of the biggest concerns is that these sudden forests will decrease the albedo (literally “whiteness”) of the tundra where snow cover bounces solar radiation back into the atmosphere creating a cooling effect. But as warming turns tundra shrubs, which can be covered by snow, into tall trees, researchers fear that less light will be bounced back creating a feedback loop that will worsen climate change. Previously, scientists have estimated that if forest covered the entire Arctic tundra it could raise global temperatures another 1 to 2 degrees Celsius (1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. To date, the Earth has warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius.
Even as shrubs becomes trees in Siberia, researchers last year reported that boreal forests had begun shifting northward into the Alaskan tundra.
(05/31/2012) Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen above 400 parts per million (ppm) in recording stations across the Arctic going as far south as Mongolia, reports the Associated Press. Such levels have not been seen in at least 800,000 years according to researchers. Carbon levels fluctuate depending on the region and the season and scientists say global concentrations will likely remain at around 395 ppm for the time being.
(05/29/2012) Last year global carbon dioxide emissions rose 3.2 percent to a new record of 31.6 gigatons, keeping the planet on track to suffer dangerous climate change, which could propel global crop failures, sea level rise, worsening extreme weather, and mass extinction. According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), China’s carbon emissions rose the most last year (9.3 percent) while emissions in Europe and the U.S. dipped slightly. China is the currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, while the U.S. has emitted the most historically.
(05/10/2012) Americans would not be remiss in asking, “is it getting hot in here?” According to new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center, the last twelve months (from May 2011 through April 2012) were the warmest on record for the lower 48 U.S. states since record keeping began in the late 19th Century.
(05/09/2012) The UN warns that a million children in Africa’s Sahel region face malnutrition due to drought in region. In all 15 million people face food insecurity in eight nations across the Sahel, a region that is still recovering from drought and a food crisis of 2010. In some countries the situation is worsened by conflict.
(05/03/2012) On Saturday, May 5th vulnerable populations from the United States to Bangladesh will “connect the dots” between devastating extreme weather and climate change in a global day of action organized by 350.org. The nearly 1,000 events occurring in over half of the world’s nations are meant to highlight to governments, media, and the public that climate change is impacting lives through an increase in number and intensity of devastating weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves, and floods.
(04/23/2012) Last week, Mexico’s Senate passed an aggressive and comprehensive climate change bill, making it the first developing nation and only the second country to do so, after the UK. The bill, which far outshines anything achieved by its far wealthier northern neighbors, sets ambitious targets for cutting emissions while creating new incentive programs for clean energy. Largely dependent on fossil fuels, Mexico is approximately the 11th highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
(04/22/2012) Seventeen top scientists and four acclaimed conservation organizations have called for radical action to create a better world for this and future generations. Compiled by 21 past winners of the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, a new paper recommends solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems including climate change, poverty, and mass extinction. The paper, entitled Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, was recently presented at the UN Environment Program governing council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.