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Higher temperatures are triggering Arctic greening

The new study from the Goddard Space Flight Center has charted how the region has become greener. This runs in parallel with warmer air and soil temperatures. Both of these factors are contributing to a rise in plant growth. As an example of the change, across 1985 and 2016, some 38 percent of the tundra sites located within Alaska, Canada, and western Eurasia displayed extensive greening.

Risks of greening

Of concern is the fact that the thawing permafrost, thereby releasing greenhouse gasses. The impact of greenhouse gases is as the gases reach the atmosphere,where they are capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere and leading to global warming.

The satellite data is able to reveal just how much actively growing vegetation there is on the ground. The process of greening either reflects plant density or plants encroaching on typical tundra grasses and moss.

Such changes strongly affect the wildlife that depend on certain plants, but also the people who live in the region and depend on local ecosystems for food.

The climate research has been published in the journal Nature Communications, where the research paper is titled “Summer warming explains widespread but not uniform greening in the Arctic tundra biome.”


One, albeit short term, positive impact of the climate change upon the region is with the tiny subpopulation of polar bears in Kane Basin. The bears are faring better now when compared with the 1990s. This is due to the thinning of sea ice. The process is enabling a greater quantity of sunlight to reach the ocean surface. This is leading to ecological changes that are leading to a greater abundance of food for the polar bears.

The number of bears is relatively smaller, compared with the global bear population. All told, between 300 to 350 bears in Kane Basin (a channel between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland).

The bears weigh between 1,200 pounds as adults and they have exacting nutritional needs. The way climate change is temporarily benefiting the bears is by the fact that with more open water, and more sunlight, this increases algae growth. In turn this supports more fish and in turn attracts seals.

However, as with any continuing climate change, the effects are likely to be short-lived and the overall ecological impact will harm the bears as much as it is impacting upon other animals.

The data is published in Global Change Biology, in the paper “Transient benefits of climate change for a high‐Arctic polar bear ( Ursus maritimus ) subpopulation.”


It is also of concern that, moving to the Antarctic, future ice-sheet melt will have significant effects on global climate. This is due to a conundrum which runs: future melt water coming off Antarctica leads to huge amounts of thick sea ice around the continent. With higher greenhouse gas emissions, the ice sheet melts faster, which in turn leads to more freshwater flowing into the ocean and more sea ice production. Of significant concern is the fact that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet will cause sea level rises of about two and a half metres around the world, even if the goals of the Paris climate agreement are met.

This complexity is outlined in the journal Science Advances: “Future climate response to Antarctic Ice Sheet melt caused by anthropogenic warming.”

In related climate change news, as coronavirus cases rise, it becomes ever more urgent to understand how climate impacts the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, especially as winter virus infections are more common.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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