Recent and Predicted Changes in Pan-Arctic Vegetation Properties and Their Climate Feedback Implications

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 8:00 AM
Scott J Goetz, Woods Hole Research Ctr, Falmouth, MA, United States
Arctic surface air temperatures have risen at approximately twice the global rate, generating a range of ecosystem responses and associated climate feedbacks. Well-documented examples include changes in vegetation productivity, fire disturbance, the expansion of woody shrubs into tundra, and associated changes in surface albedo and net surface shortwave radiative forcing. I will briefly review these and other changes across the pan-Arctic domain using a combination of field measurements and satellite remote sensing observations. I will examine the evidence for change that has already occurred and also discuss predictions of likely future ecosystem responses under different climate change scenarios. I will identify research and data needs that would help to resolve discrepancies and disparities that have been reported. In particular I will address the current potential and limitations of vegetation distribution models and the data sets that inform them. Notably, model predictions indicate rapid shifts to larger woody growth-forms, rapid colonization due to long-distance dispersal, and favorable conditions for recruitment following disturbances like tundra fire and permafrost degradation. Future albedo, evapotranspiration and aboveground biomass will change with the redistribution of Arctic vegetation, and the climate feedbacks of these ecosystem changes can be significant. Albedo and net surface shortwave radiation changes will dominate the influence on climate, largely due to the snow masking effects of taller vegetation. The carbon implications of ecosystem change will likely be dominated by processes that influence permafrost thaw vulnerability, but predictions also indicate that vegetation in the Arctic will affect climate primarily as a biophysical medium (i.e. via albedo change). As with thawing permafrost, predicted vegetation changes would exacerbate currently amplified rates of warming. New research efforts focused on the Arctic will address the research and data needs to inform our understanding of the net feedback of multiple ecosystem responses to climate, increasing confidence in our ability to understand changes that are already being observed, predict future change, and the implications for climate, ecosystems and people both within and outside the Arctic domain.