Arctic warming heralds new ecosystem

03 June 2012


Arctic warming is causing the emergence of a new ecosystem – one that has not been seen since the days of sabre tooth tigers and mammoths some ten thousand years ago. And although it will not lead to the re-emergence of such creatures, it is likely to have significant effects on local communities and the speed at which warming takes place in the Arctic.

A study by researchers led by Marc Macias-Fauria, a research fellow with the Oxford Martin School, and published in Nature Climate Change this week, has shown a fast and strong vegetation response to temperature increases in the Eurasian Arctic tundra , which may potentially contribute to significant advances in warming in the area.

The tundra used to be covered in low lying shrubs and vegetation, which for most of the year lay under a thick layer of snow and ice which would reflect the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere. This area is now home to trees (> 2m) which no longer provide a uniform area of snow to reflect the sun. Rather, the sun’s energy is absorbed into areas that are not snow covered, so increasing the heat of the land and compounding the problems of warming.The warming of the tundra could have significant impacts, not only on the local nomadic people, who have to find new areas in which to farm their reindeer, but also on industry (mostly oil and gas extraction).

According to Macias-Fauria, “Meteorological records from the East European Arctic and the Yamal Region of Northwest Siberia indicate that annual air temperatures have risen by 1-2 degrees in the last 60 years (as compared to a 0.5-0.6 global rise). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that global climate in the coming century will be 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer than today (up to 7°C regionally in the Barents Region). The added Arctic warming effect of the rapid appearance of erect vegetation in the tundra might be on the range of 1.5°C to 2°C, as compared with no vegetation change.”

This publication comes at the end of a four year project which Macias-Fauria has carried out with fellow academics Bruce Forbes, Pentti Zetterberg and Timo Kumpula, based at the Universities of Lapland and Eastern Finland.