Science

Arctic Plants: Their Role In Our Climate

 The Arctic is warming up at more than twice the rate of the global average leading to thawing permafrost and melting glaciers regionally.

In The Orkney News, 1st November, we reported on Antarctica: Summer Thawing Lasting Longer. In this series in the run up to COP27 this article turns our attention to the Arctic.

The 2022 summer in Europe was the hottest on record.

The summer of 2022 saw heat waves across Europe. Funded by the EU, The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), publishes monthly climate bulletins reporting on the changes observed in global surface air temperature, sea ice cover and hydrological variables. All the reported findings are based on computer-generated analyses using billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world. 

Plants can have a cooling or a warming effect.

The Arctic has diverse vegetation. This has become the focus of new research by an international team coordinated from the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies of the University of Zurich (UZH).

Arctic vegetation is highly diverse and ranges from dry grasslands and wetlands to scrubland dominated by dwarf shrubs as well as barrens with mosses and lichens. The researchers linked this vegetation diversity to all available energy exchange data collected by 64 measuring stations in the Arctic between 1994 and 2021.

Graminoid-dominated tundra with dwarf shrubs growing in national park Kytalyk, in the Siberian Arctic. The blurred areas in the image are created by heat haze, which occurs when various surfaces heat up differently and hence create turbulence in the air. Image credit: Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, University of Zurich
Graminoid-dominated tundra with dwarf shrubs growing in national park Kytalyk, in the Siberian Arctic. The blurred areas in the image are created by heat haze, which occurs when various surfaces heat up differently and hence create turbulence in the air. Image credit: Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, University of Zurich

Their focus was on the summer months between June and August, during which sunlight, and thus energy absorption, is particularly high. Depending on the type of vegetation, either the surface or the air are warmed to varying degrees. In addition, with increasing shrub density land warms up earlier after winter.

UZH professor Gabriela Schaepman-Strub, explained:

“Our findings on the energy flows in the Arctic are extremely relevant, since the preservation of permafrost depends to a large extent on the heat flux into the ground.”

The study’s data make it possible to incorporate the effects of different plant communities and their distribution into climate predictions. Researchers can thus use improved climate models to calculate whether, and to which extent tundra vegetation in the Arctic plays a role in cooling the land surface.

The researcher state that although the Arctic is changing rapidly and has a major impact on the climate dynamics of the entire planet, there are only few reliable measuring stations in this region. They are calling for current stations to remain in operation and believe that new stations are needed in those Arctic landscape types that could only be partially analyzed due to incomplete data.

You can find the results of their study here: Vegetation Type is an Important Predictor of the Arctic Summer Land Surface Energy Budget, published in Nature Communications.

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