Causes of Greening Process are More Complex, Variable than Previously Thought

Researchers dealing with the so-called greening of Arctic regions, which is known to be the most apparent impact of climate change, are now implementing new research techniques.

The new drone and satellite technology is helping an international research team to gain a deeper understanding of how the large, treeless areas—known as the tundra—are turning out to be greener.

Arctic Greening

Plants are responding to the warmer summer temperatures in the Arctic. In fact, plants are bearing leaves sooner in the spring season, and snow is melting earlier than usual. Tundra vegetation is expanding into new regions, and plants that were already growing in certain areas are currently growing taller.

Interpreting the way data is recorded from the air and comparing it with the observations made on the ground will help in creating the most transparent picture yet of how the northern regions of Asia, Europe, and North America are experiencing a change with rising temperatures.

Global Team

A research team involving 40 investigators from 36 institutions has demonstrated that factors responsible for this greening process are more complicated and inconsistent than was believed previously. The team was headed by two explorers from National Geographic.

Scientists from North America and Europe have observed that the responses of tundra plants to growing temperatures on the ground are not the sole cause of Arctic greening seen from space. Moreover, satellites are capturing other kinds of changes such as variations in the wetness of landscapes and the timing of the melting of snow.

Necrs 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.

Dr Isla Myers-Smith, Study Lead Author, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

Vital Research

According to Professor Scott Goetz from the School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University, the study is important to understand the global climate change. Plants in the Tundra region act as an obstacle between the large stocks of carbon stored in frozen ground and the warming atmosphere.

Vegetation changes modify the balance that exists between the proportion of carbon captured and its emission into the air. Slight changes could have a considerable impact on efforts being made to limit warming below 1.5 °C—which happens to be a major target of the Paris Agreement. The research will aid researchers to understand the type of factors that will decelerate or accelerate warming.

Besides collecting new imagery, advances in how we process and analyse these data - even imagery that is decades old—are revolutionising how we understand the past, present, and future of the Arctic.

Dr Jeffrey Kerby, Study Co-Lead Author and Neukom Fellow, Dartmouth College

We look forward to the impact that this work will have on our collective understanding of the Arctic for generations to come,” concluded Alex Moen, Vice President of Explorer Programs, National Geographic Society.

The study was partly funded by the National Geographic Society and also by government agencies in Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America, including NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) and the Natural Environment Research Council of the United Kingdom.

The study was also supported by the Synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, and was published in the Nature Climate Change journal. The research was informed by a U.S. National Academy of Sciences workshop, Understanding Northern Latitude Vegetation Greening and Browning.

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