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Published: 2020-03-11

Global science team on red alert as Arctic lands grow greener

NEWS Researchers are using drone and satellite technology to deal with the most visible effect of climate change - the rise of green vegetation in Arctic regions. With the new remote analysis techniques, researchers gain a better understanding of how the large, treeless regions called tundra are becoming greener.

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

University lecturer Johan Olofsson at Umeå University is part of the international team of 40 researchers from 36 research institutes, which shows that the causes of the greening process are more complex - and variable - than we previously thought. The scientific article has been published in Nature Climate Change.

Lead author Dr Isla Myers-Smith, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, says: “New technologies including sensors on drones, planes and satellites, are enabling scientists to track emerging patterns of greening found within satellite pixels that cover the size of football fields.”

As Arctic summer temperatures warm, plants are responding. Snow is melting earlier and plants are coming into leaf sooner in spring. Tundra vegetation is spreading into new areas and where plants were already growing, they are now growing taller. 

Understanding how data captured from the air compare with observations made on the ground will help to build the clearest picture yet of how the northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America are changing as the temperature rises.

The greener Arctic that scientists observed from space is caused by more than just the response of the tundra plants to the warming of the soil. The high-resolution images from the satellites also capture other changes such as altered snowmelt and soil moisture.

Changes in vegetation alter the balance between the amount of carbon captured and its release into the atmosphere. Small variations could significantly impact efforts to keep warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade – a key target of the Paris Agreement. The study will help scientists to figure out which factors will speed up or slow down warming. In addition to collecting new images, they could also analyse images that are decades old.

“Tundra plants serve as a barrier between the heated atmosphere and huge layers of coal stored in frozen soil. This study shows that it is important to also take into account the small-scale variation in landscapes in order to understand these processes”, says Johan Olofsson, Associate Professor at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Umeå University.

Original article:

Myers-Smith, I.H., Kerby, J.T., Phoenix, G.K. et al.: Complexity revealed in the greening of the Arctic. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 106–117 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0688-1

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