The tundra in Siberia is one of the habitats already feeling the effects of climate change most severely, especially through thawing permafrost soils and changing precipitation patterns. But rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic are also preparing the ground for the northward expansion of boreal forests, which will displace the tundra. Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute have now found in a modeling study that even with ambitious greenhouse gas reduction measures, only one-third of the Siberian tundra would be preserved.
In the last 50 years, the air temperature in the Arctic has already risen by more than two degrees Celsius – much more than anywhere else in the world. With a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (emissions scenario RCP 2.6), further warming of the Arctic could be limited to just below two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. By contrast, if we do not reduce our emissions (RCP 8.5), the Arctic could experience average summer temperatures 14 degrees Celsius higher than today by 2100.
“For the Arctic Ocean and sea ice, current and future warming will have significant consequences,” says Prof. Dr. Ulrike Herzschuh, head of the Polar Terrestrial Environmental Systems Section at AWI and co-author of the study. “But the environment will also change drastically on land. The vast Arctic tundra areas in Siberia and North America will decline massively because the tree line is currently shifting slowly northward and will shift very rapidly in the near future. In the worst case, the tundra will almost completely disappear by the middle of the millennium. In our study, we simulated this process in the model for the Siberian tundra in northeastern Russia. The focus was on one question in particular: what emissions path must humanity follow to save at least parts of the tundra as a refuge for animals and plants, as well as for the culture and traditional environmental relationships of indigenous peoples?”
The two authors of the study, Prof. Ulrike Herzschuh and Dr. Stefan Kruse, used the AWI vegetation model LAVESI for their simulation. “What’s special about LAVESI is that we can represent the entire tree line at the level of individuals, individual trees,” Kruse explains. “The model maps the complete life cycle of Siberian larches at the transition to tundra – from seed production and seed dispersal to germination and full growth of the tree. This allows us to very realistically calculate the advance of the tree line in an increasingly warmer climate.”
Their results show that the larch forest is expanding northward at a rate of 30 kilometers per decade. Since the tundra has no possibility of spreading because of the adjacent Arctic Ocean in northern Siberia, these areas will shrink. Forest expansion is still proceeding very slowly, as vegetation lags strongly behind warming. However, according to the simulation, the speed of spread increases sharply already from 2030. By 2500, only 5.7 percent of the tundra area in Siberia could be left. However, even under the RCP 2.6 scenario, only one-third of the original area would be preserved – on the Taymir Peninsula and in Chukotka.
“For the Siberian tundra, it is now a matter of mere survival,” comments Eva Klebelsberg, Arctic regions officer at WWF Germany, on the study. “Only with very ambitious climate protection goals is it still possible to save larger areas. And even then, in the best case, only two refuges with smaller animal and plant populations that are very vulnerable to disruptive influences will remain in the long term. That is why it is important to expand protective measures and protected areas in the affected areas now in order to preserve refuges for the unique biodiversity of the tundra,” demands Eva Klebelsberg, who is campaigning for the designation of protected areas in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute. “Because what’s clear is that if we keep doing business as usual, this ecosystem is going to disappear in the long run.”
Julia Hager, PolarJournal / Original text: Press release AWI
Link to the study: Stefan Kruse, Ulrike Herzschuh (2022): Regional opportunities for tundra conservation in the next 1000 years. eLife 11:e75163. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.75163
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