AWI study shows: only ambitious climate protection measures can still save a third of the tundra .
Due to global warming, temperatures in the Arctic are climbing rapidly. As a result, the treeline for Siberian larch forests is steadily advancing to the north, gradually supplanting the broad expanses of tundra which are home to a unique mix of flora and fauna. Experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute have now prepared a computer simulation of how these woods could spread in the future, at the tundra’s expense. Their conclusion: only consistent climate protection measures will allow roughly 30 percent of the Siberian tundra to survive to mid-millennium. In all other, less favourable scenarios, the unique habitat is projected to disappear entirely. The study was just released in the journal eLife.
The climate crisis can especially be felt in the Arctic: in the High North, the average air temperature has risen by more than two degrees Celsius over the past 50 years – far more than anywhere else. And this trend will only continue. If ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction measures (Emissions Scenario RCP 2.6) are taken, the further warming of the Arctic through the end of the century could be limited to just below two degrees. According to model-based forecasts, if the emissions remain high (Scenario RCP 8.5), we could see a dramatic rise in the average summer temperatures in the Arctic – by up to 14 degrees Celsius over today’s norm by 2100.
The tundra is home to a unique community of plants, roughly five percent of which are endemic, i.e., can only be found in the Arctic. Typical species include the mountain avens, Arctic poppy and prostrate shrubs like willows and birches, all of which have adapted to the harsh local conditions: brief summers and long, arduous winters. It also offers a home for rare species like reindeer, lemmings and insects like the Arctic bumblebee. For their simulation, Ulrike Herzschuh and AWI modeller Dr Stefan Kruse employed the AWI vegetation model LAVESI.
The findings speak for themselves: the larch forests could spread northward at a rate of up to 30 kilometres per decade. The tundra expanses, which can’t shift to colder regions due to the adjacent Arctic Ocean, would increasingly dwindle. Since trees aren’t mobile and each one’s seeds can only reach a limited distribution radius, initially the vegetation would significantly lag behind the warming, but then catch up to it again. In the majority of scenarios, by mid-millennium less than six percent of today’s tundra would remain; saving roughly 30 percent would only be possible with the aid of ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction measures.
Otherwise, Siberia’s once 4,000-kilometre-long, unbroken tundra belt would shrink to two patches, 2,500 kilometres apart, on the Taimyr Peninsula to the west and Chukotka Peninsula to the east. Interestingly, even if the atmosphere cooled again in the course of the millennium, the forests would not completely release the former tundra areas.
Original publication: Stefan Kruse, Ulrike Herzschuh: Regional opportunities for tundra conservation in the next 1000 years. eLife (2022). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.75163
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