Research sheds light on fate of plant life in Arctic

The research findings, published in the Journal of Ecology, show that climate change during the winter months is having a significant impact on the plant life in parts of the Arctic. Research into this area has received little attention when compared with summer warming studies, despite the detrimental effects winter warming is having.

The study, which looked at both a natural event and a simulated experiment, found extensive damage to shrubs after a sharp rise in temperatures which lasted for only a few days duration in the winter months.

During the natural event in Scandinavia, temperatures rose to 7ºC resulting in loss of snow cover across several hundred square kilometres. Observations during the following summer recorded extensive damage to vegetation in the area. The simulated winter warming event, using heating lamps and soil warming cables on the same type of vegetation, produced similar results.

When the temperature rises, the vegetation is no longer insulated by deep snow and so experiences the full impact of warming, before rapidly returning to cold winter temperatures. These rapid warming events can cause considerable damage to sub-Arctic plant communities.
These findings are in sharp contrast to studies into summer warming which found that some Arctic regions are "greening" with an increase in plant cover.

Dr Gareth Phoenix, from the University of Sheffield´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: "The fact that we have the same observations from the natural event and the simulation study reinforces the confidence we have in our findings. How widely this damage might apply to the rest of the Arctic is unclear, but given that the Arctic will warm relatively more in the winter than in the summer, we are concerned this could become a more frequently observed phenomenon. This damage may then lead to a shift from the ecosystem taking up CO2 to releasing CO2, meaning that there is also a concern for the global climate."


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