Arctic Vegetation is Growing Taller & Why That Matters

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The Arctic ecosystem is changing and it is doing so at an alarming rate. Indeed, the Arctic Circle is warming faster than most other ecosystems on this planet. All of this change has implications for the plant communities that call this region home. In a landmark study that incorporated thousands of data points from places like Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia, researchers have demonstrated that Arctic vegetation is, on average, getting taller.

Imagine what it is like to be a plant growing in the Arctic. Extreme winds, low temperatures, a short growing season, and plenty of snow are just some of the hardships that characterize life on the tundra. Such harsh conditions have shaped the plants of this region into what we know and love today. Arctic plants tend to hug the ground, hunkering down behind whatever nook or cranny offers the most respite from their surroundings. As such, plants of Arctic-type habitats tend to be pretty small in stature. As you can probably imagine, if these limits to plant growth become less severe, plants will respond accordingly.

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That is part of what makes this new paper so alarming. The vegetation that comprise these Arctic communities is nearly twice as tall today as it was 30 years ago. However, the increase in height is not because the plants that currently grow there are getting taller but rather because new plants are moving northwards into these Arctic regions. New players in the system are usually cause for concern. Other studies have shown that it isn’t warming necessarily that hurts Arctic and alpine plants but rather competition. They simply cannot compete as well with more aggressive plant species from lower latitudes.

Taller plants moving into the Arctic may have even larger consequences than just changes in species interactions. It can also change ecosystem processes, however, this is much harder to predict. One possible consequence of taller plants invading the Arctic involves carbon storage. It is possible that as conditions continue to favor taller and more woody vegetation, there could actually be more carbon storage in this system. Woody tissues tend to sequester more carbon and shading from taller vegetation may slow decomposition rates of debris in and around the soil.

Alopecurus alpinus  is one of the new tall plant species moving into the Arctic

Alopecurus alpinus is one of the new tall plant species moving into the Arctic

It is also possible that taller vegetation will alter snowpack, which is vital to the health and function of life in the Arctic. Taller plants with more leaf area could result in a reduced albedo in the surrounding area. Lowering the albedo means increased soil temperatures and reduced snowpack as a result. Alternatively, taller plants could also increase the amount of snowpack thanks to snow piling up among branches and leaves. This could very well lead (counterintuitively) to warmer soils and higher decomposition rates as snowpack acts like an insulating blanket, keeping the soil slightly above freezing throughout most of the winter.

It is difficult to make predictions on how a system is going to respond to massive changes in the average conditions. However, studies looking at how vegetation communities are responding to changes in their environment offer us one of the best windows we have into how ecosystems might change moving into the uncertain future we are creating for ourselves.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1]

Spring Has Sprung Earlier

Phenology is defined as "the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomenon, especially in relation to climate, plant, and animal life." Whether its deciding when to plant certain crops or when to start taking your allergy medication, our lives are intricately tied to such cycles. The study of phenology has other applications as well. By and large, it is one of the best methods we have in understanding the effects of climate change on ecosystems around the globe. 

For plants, phenology can be applied to a variety of things. We use it every time we take note of the first signs of leaf out, the first flowers to open, or the emergence of insect herbivores.  In the temperate zones of the world, phenology plays a considerable role in helping us track the emergence of spring and the onset of fall. As we collect more and more data on how global climates are changing, phenology is confirming what many climate change models have predicted - spring is starting earlier and fall is lasting longer.

Researchers at the USA National Phenology Network have created a series of maps that illustrate the early onset of spring by using decades worth of data on leaf out. Leaf out is controlled by a variety of factors such as the length of chilling temperatures in winter, the rate of heat accumulation in the spring, and photoperiod. Still, for woody species, the timing of leaf out is strongly tied to changes in local climate. And, although it varies from year to year and from species to species, the overall trend has been one in which plants are emerging much earlier than they have in the past.

https://www.usanpn.org/data/spring

For the southern United States, the difference is quite startling. Spring leaf out is happening as much as 20 days earlier than it has in past decades. Stark differences between current and past leaf out dates are called "anomalies" and the 2017 anomaly in the southern United States is one of the most extreme on record.

How this is going to alter ecosystems is hard to predict. The extended growing seasons are likely to increase productivity for many plant species, however, this will also change competitive interactions among species in the long term. Early leaf out also comes with increased risk of frost damage. Cold snaps are still quite possible, especially in February and March, and these can cause serious damage to leaves and branches. Such damage can result in a reduction of productivity for these species.

Changes in leaf out dates are not only going to affect individual species or even just the plants themselves. Changes in natural cycles such as leaf out and flowering can have ramifications across entire landscapes. Mismatches in leaf emergence and insect herbivores, or flowers and pollinators have the potential to alter entire food webs. It is hard to make predictions on exactly how ecosystems are going to respond but what we can say is that things are already changing and they are doing so more rapidly than they have in a very long time. 

For these reasons and so many more, the study of phenology in natural systems is crucial for understanding how the natural world is changing. Although we have impressive amounts of data to draw from, we still have a lot to learn. The great news is that anyone can partake in phenological data collection. Phenology offers many great citizen science opportunities. Anyone and everyone can get involved. You can join the National Phenology Network in their effort to track phenological changes in your neighborhood. Check out this link to learn more: USA National Phenology Network

Further Reading: [1] [2]