Home » Arctic Climate Change » Level 3 » Question 4

Arctic Climate Change

4. How will the vegetation be affected by Arctic warming?

  • 4.1 How will vegetation zones shift?
  • 4.2 How will boreal forests be affected?
    • 4.2.1 Countervailing Forces on Climate
    • 4.2.2 Northern Forests
    • 4.2.3 Response of Siberian Forests to Climate Change
    • 4.2.4 Temperature Threshold for White Spruce
    • 4.2.5 Black Spruce, Rising Temperatures, and Thawing Permafrost
  • 4.3 Will there be an increase in forest fires or insect pests?
  • 4.4 Will agricultural opportunities increase in the Arctic?

The source document for this Digest states:


Arctic vegetation zones are likely to shift, causing wide-ranging impacts.

4.1 How will vegetation zones shift?

The source document for this Digest states:

Shifting Vegetation Zones

Climate-induced changes in arctic landscapes are important to local people and animals in terms of food, fuel, culture, and habitat. These changes also have the potential for global impacts because many processes related to arctic landscapes affect global climate and resources. Some changes in arctic landscapes are already underway and future changes are projected to be considerably greater.

The major arctic vegetation zones include the polar deserts, tundra, and the northern part of the boreal forest. The northern-most zone that covers most of the high arctic is the polar desert, characterized by open patches of bare ground and an absence of even the smallest woody shrubs. Although polar desert vegetation is quite sparse, musk ox and small sub-species of caribou/reindeer are found in this zone. Tundra is characterized by low shrub vegetation.

Climate change is projected to cause vegetation shifts because rising temperatures favor taller, denser vegetation, and will thus promote the expansion of forests into the arctic tundra, and tundra into the polar deserts. The timeframe of these shifts will vary around the Arctic. Where suitable soils and other conditions exist, changes are likely to be apparent in this century. Where they do not, the changes can be expected to take longer. These vegetation changes, along with rising sea levels, are projected to shrink tundra area to its lowest extent in at least the past 21 000 years, greatly reducing the breeding area for many birds and the grazing areas for land animals that depend on the open landscape of tundra and polar desert habitats. Not only are some threatened species very likely to become extinct, some currently widespread species are projected to decline sharply.

Many of the adaptations that enable plants and animals to survive in this cold environment also limit their ability to compete with invading species responding to climate warming. The rapid rate of projected changes in climate also presents special difficulties to the ability of many species to adapt. The primary response of arctic plants and animals to warming is thus expected to be relocation. As species from the south shift their ranges northward, in some cases by as much as 1000 kilometers, they are very likely to displace some arctic species (whose northward shifts are hindered by the Arctic Ocean). Such range displacements have already begun among some bird, fish, and butterfly species. Seabirds, mosses, and lichens are among the groups expected to decline as warming increases. The Arctic is an important global storehouse of diversity for mosses and lichens, containing 600 species of mosses and 2000 species of lichens, more than anywhere else on earth.

The total number of species in the Arctic is projected to increase under a warmer climate due to the influx of species from the south. But entire communities and ecosystems do not shift intact. Rather, the range of each species shifts in response to its sensitivity to climate change, its mobility, its lifespan, and the availability of appropriate soil, moisture, and other needs. The ranges of animals can generally shift much faster than those of plants, and large migratory animals such as caribou can move much more readily than small animals such as lemmings. In addition, migratory pathways must be available, such as northward flowing rivers as conduits for fish species from the southern part of the region. Some migratory pathways may be blocked by development. All of these variations result in the break-up of current communities and ecosystems and the formation of new communities and ecosystems, with unknown consequences.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Feedback Shifting Vegetation Zones, p.46

4.2 How will boreal forests be affected?

    • 4.2.1 Countervailing Forces on Climate
    • 4.2.2 Northern Forests
    • 4.2.3 Response of Siberian Forests to Climate Change
    • 4.2.4 Temperature Threshold for White Spruce
    • 4.2.5 Black Spruce, Rising Temperatures, and Thawing Permafrost

4.2.1 Countervailing Forces on Climate

The source document for this Digest states:

The projected reduction in tundra and expansion of forest will cause a decrease in surface reflectivity, amplifying global warming because the newly forested areas are darker and more textured and thus will absorb more solar radiation than the lighter, smoother tundra. For example, black spruce is the least reflective of any vegetation type and is likely to be a large part of the mix of new trees in North America. In addition, expanding forests will mask highly reflective snow. The darkening of the surface that results from these changes will create a feedback loop whereby more warming will lead to more tree establishment and forest cover, which will cause more warming, and so on.

On the other hand, the expanding forest vegetation will be more biologically productive than the existing tundra vegetation, and the tundra will be more productive than the polar deserts it displaces. Model results suggest that this could increase carbon storage, slightly moderating the projected amount of warming. The net effect of these countervailing forces involves multiple competing influences that are not fully understood. However, recent studies suggest that the increase in absorption of solar radiation will dominate over the increase in carbon storage, resulting in a net increase in warming.

Desertification: A “Potential Surprise"

Because changes in climate alter many variables and their interrelationships, it is often difficult to project all of the interactive effects on the environment, especially over the long term. While there is high confidence that temperatures will rise and total annual precipitation will increase, it is not known whether the increase in precipitation will keep up with the warming in all areas and for all seasons. Because the rate of evaporation increases as temperatures climb, if precipitation does not rise enough to keep up with that increase, land areas would dry out.

Another complexity is the degree of permafrost thawing and the subsequent drainage of water from the land. For example, summer thawing of the active layer of permafrost (the top layer that thaws in summer and freezes in winter) in Barrow, Alaska is now resulting in a great deal of water at the surface. However, this moisture could be lost if the depth of the active layer increases as projected. This is very likely to happen in parts of the Arctic; areas that were not glaciated 10 000 years ago and have finegrained wind-deposited soils on top of permafrost are particularly prone to drying and erosion. Records of past climatic conditions suggest that this mechanism occurred in the cold and dry tundra-steppe areas of Siberia and Alaska. These processes are likely to lead to an initial greening, followed by desertification in some areas as warming continues.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #2, Desertification: Countervailing Forces on Climate, p.48-49

4.2.2 Northern Forests

The source document for this Digest states:

Huge areas of central and eastern Siberia and northwestern North America represent the most extensive remaining areas of natural forest on the planet. Three of the four nations with the largest areas of forest in the world are arctic nations: Russia, Canada, and the United States. Forest and woodland areas in arctic nations represent about 31% of the world's forest (all types) and the boreal forest by itself covers about 17% of the earth's land surface area. As climate continues to warm, the boreal (northern) forests are projected to shift into the arctic region as the forested area expands northward.

The boreal forests are extremely important globally for their economic and environmental values. Extensive areas of the boreal forests of Finland, Sweden, and parts of Canada are intensively managed for timber production and contribute 10-30% of the export earnings of these nations. The boreal forest collects, modifies, and distributes much of the freshwater that enters the arctic basin, and climate change will modify many of these important functions. The forest is also the breeding zone for a huge influx of migratory forest birds and provides habitat for fur-bearing mammals including wolverine, wolf, and lynx, as well as larger mammals including moose and caribou, all of which significantly support northern local economies.

Many impacts of climate change are already becoming apparent in the boreal forest: reduced rates of tree growth in some species and at some sites; increased growth rates in others; larger and more extensive fires and insect outbreaks; and a range of effects due to thawing permafrost, including new wetland development and collapsing of the ground surface and the associated loss of trees.

Challenges for Tree Establishment

Recent studies in Siberia have established conclusively that trees were present across the entire Russian Arctic, all the way to the northernmost shore, during the warm period that occurred about 8000-9000 years ago, a few thousand years after the end of the last ice age. Remains of frozen trees still in place on these lands provide clear evidence that a warmer arctic climate allowed trees to grow much further north than they are now. While this and other evidence suggests that vegetation zones are very likely to shift northward over the long term, such a process rarely develops in a straightforward manner. Various factors, including disturbances such as fires and floods, can either speed up or block tree establishment for some period of time. In addition, human activities create pressures that can prevent tree establishment in new areas. For example, in some parts of Russia, treeline is actually regressing southward due to the effects of industrial pollution.

Though forests are generally expected to move into tundra areas, some environments that now support trees will no longer be able to, primarily due to drying. New areas are likely to have a climate suitable for growing trees, but that does not guarantee that trees will, in fact, grow there, as there are a variety of challenges for trees moving into new areas. First, there is likely to be a time lag because some conditions needed for new tree growth, such as suitable soil, may not be present and will take time to develop. In addition, the dry tundra mat is not a hospitable surface for seeds to germinate in and plants to become established on. Some types of disturbance, such as flooding in river flood plains, are likely to facilitate tree establishment in some areas. On the other hand, in western Siberia, for example, it is possible that waterlogging of trees and a subsequent southward retreat of the treeline will accompany a wetter climate.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Northern Forests, p.50-51

4.2.3 Response of Siberian Forests to Climate Change

The source document for this Digest states:

A forest study conducted in Siberia from the southern edge of the Central Asian steppe (grassland) to the treeline in the north reveals some of the ways that climate controls the growth of dominant tree species, in this case, the Scots pine and Siberian larch. In the southern part of this area, drought is the major factor limiting tree growth; cool wet growing seasons produce the most growth. Further north, in the southern and middle boreal forest, warmer midsummer weather reduces growth, while extension of the growing season earlier and later is associated with increased growth. In the northern boreal forest and northern treeline, warm midsummer weather is the principal factor that increases tree growth.

Climate change could produce two different kinds of response in the boreal forest. If the limiting environmental factors remain similar to those in the recent past, simple linear change would occur in which a forest type is replaced by its neighbor from the south. However, sometimes ecosystems display little change until they are confronted with environmental changes that exceed critical thresholds to which they are sensitive. In this case, climate change produces new kinds of ecosystems that are not present in the current landscape. Reconstructions of ancient ecosystems during past periods of climate change such as the last ice age, display such non-linear patterns of change. Potential non-linear changes might include a retreat of treeline southward in some areas. In other areas, forest tree species might not survive or might become so sparse that the tundra would directly border grassland or savanna rather than the boreal forest as it does today.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Response of Siberian Forests to Climate Change, p.52

4.2.4 Temperature Threshold for White Spruce

The source document for this Digest states:

White spruce is the most widespread boreal conifer (evergreen, cone-bearing) and the most valuable timber species in the North American boreal forest. It also makes up most of the slow-growing forest found near the tundra margin. In dry central Alaska and western Canada, high summer temperatures decrease the growth of white spruce due to drought. By contrast, in moist coastal and lower mountain regions, white spruce growth increases with high summer temperatures. A study at treeline in the Alaska and Brookes Ranges examined 1500 white spruce trees in both dry and moist areas and found that 42% of the trees grew less under higher summer temperatures (negative responders) while 38% grew more (positive responders).

Most significantly, this study found a specific temperature threshold above which the growth of the negative responders decreased sharply. When July temperature at a nearby station rose above 16˚C, the growth of the negative responders decreased in direct proportion to the warming. Before 1950, few Julys were warmer than the threshold, so the negative response was weak. But since 1950, there have been many warm Julys, so the negative response has been very strong. Extending the observed pattern into the future, a 4˚C rise in July temperature would result in no growth, causing the elimination of these trees at treeline. (As for the positive responders, at most treeline sites in the Arctic, their positive response to warming has weakened in the late 20th century, although in Alaska their growth has increased with warming.)

Specific temperature thresholds also trigger white spruce cone production, which is timed to release large numbers of seeds only when conditions are optimal for their establishment, generally following fires. Climate change has altered the timing of both fires and cone production so that these events are no longer as closely related, which could reduce the effectiveness of white spruce reproduction.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Temperature Threshold for White Spruce, p.53

4.2.5 Black Spruce, Rising Temperatures, and Thawing Permafrost

The source document for this Digest states:

Black spruce is the dominant tree in about 55% of the boreal forest in Alaska. It is a key species because its high absorption of the sun’s energy increases warming and because of its role as a flammable species that carries fire across the landscape. While black spruce is likely to be an important part of the boreal forest that would expand into tundra as a result of climate change, the species faces a number of challenges to its survival where it is currently dominant. On drier permafrost-dominated sites in interior Alaska, the growth of black spruce decreases with increasing summer temperatures. At the upper ranges of projected warming for this century, it is not likely to survive on these sites due to drought conditions. On other sites in Alaska, black spruce is negatively affected by high early spring temperatures because photosynthesis (and thus the requirement for water) begins while the ground is still frozen, causing damage due to drying of its needles. Finally, even on those permafrost sites where warming has historically increased the growth of black spruce, the trees are at risk from collapsing of the ground surface due to thawing.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Black Spruce, Rising Temperatures, and Thawing Permafrost, p.53

4.3 Will there be an increase in forest fires or insect pests?

    • 4.3.1 Insect Outbreaks
    • 4.3.2 Forest Fires

4.3.1 Insect Outbreaks

The source document for this Digest states:

Increased forest disturbances due to insect outbreaks are almost certain to result from climate warming. Increasing problems with spruce bark beetles and spruce budworms in the North American Arctic provides two important examples. Large areas of forest disturbance create new opportunities for invasive species from warmer climates and/or non-native species to become established.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Feedback 3: Insect Outbreaks, p.54

Spruce Bark Beetle

Spruce Budworm

4.3.2 Forest Fires

The source document for this Digest states:

Forest fires could become more frequent
Forest fires could become more frequent

Fire is another major disturbance factor in the boreal forest and it exerts pervasive ecological effects. The area burned in western North America has doubled over the past thirty years, and it is forecast to increase by as much as 80% over the next 100 years under projected climate warming. Models of forest fire in parts of Siberia suggest that a summer temperature jump from 9.8˚C to 15.3˚C would double the number of years in which there are severe fires, increase the area of forest burned annually by nearly 150%, and decrease average wood stock by 10%.

Fires in Eurasian Forests

The area of boreal forest burned annually in Russia averaged four million hectares over the last three decades, and more than doubled in the 1990s. As climate continues to warm, the forest fire season will begin earlier and last longer. Projected changes in climate would greatly increase the area subjected to the types of weather that cause extreme fire danger. Under those conditions, fire spread in boreal forests of Eurasia would greatly increase if ignitions occurred. Fires are also expected to be more frequent and of higher intensity in all ecosystems, including bogged forests and peat bogs that that contain vast amounts of carbon-based forest materials such as moss, wood, and leaves. It is projected that about one billion tonnes of this organic matter will burn annually, increasing carbon emissions to the atmosphere. However, some scenarios suggest that it is possible that fire would become more frequent in some regions and less frequent in others, greatly affecting individual areas but amounting to only a small overall change in the total amount of fire.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #2, Forest Fires, p.56

4.4 Will agricultural opportunities increase in the Arctic?

The source document for this Digest states:

Agricultural Opportunities are Likely to Expand

Arctic agriculture is a relatively small enterprise in global terms, though some nations, such as Iceland, produce more than enough meat and dairy products to sustain their populations. Agriculture in the north consists mostly of cool-season forage crops; cool-season vegetables; small grains; raising cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry; and herding reindeer. While agriculture is limited by climate in the Arctic, especially in the cooler parts, it is also limited by the lack of infrastructure, small population base, remoteness from markets, and land ownership issues. Climatic limitations include short growing seasons (not enough time for crops to mature or to produce high yields of harvestable crops), lack of heat energy (days not warm enough during the growing season), long cold winters that can limit survival of many perennial crops, and moisture stress in some areas.

Climate change is projected to advance the potential for commercial crop production northward throughout this century, with some crops now suitable only for the warmer parts of the boreal region becoming suitable as far north as the Arctic Circle. Average annual yield potential is likely to increase as the climate becomes suitable for higher yielding varieties and the probability of low temperatures limiting growth is reduced. However, in warmer areas, increased warmth during the growing season may cause slight decreases in yields since higher temperatures speed development, reducing time to accumulate dry matter. Longer and warmer growing seasons are expected to increase the potential number of harvests and hence seasonal yields for perennial forage crops.

Uncertainty about winter conditions make forecasts about survival potential for crops difficult. Warmer winters could actually decrease survival of some perennial crops if winter thaws followed by cold weather become more frequent. This would be especially true in areas with little snowfall. However, longer growing seasons, especially in autumn, should result in a northward extension of conditions suitable for producing crops such as alfalfa and barley.

Water deficits are likely to increase over the next century in most of the boreal region because increases in warm-season precipitation are unlikely to keep up with increased evaporation due to higher temperatures. Unless irrigation is used, water stress is likely to negatively affect crop yields and water limitation is likely to become more important than temperature limitations for many crops in much of the region. Areas that are unlikely to experience water deficits include parts of eastern Canada, western Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, which all experience fairly maritime climates.

Insects, diseases, and weeds are likely to increase throughout the Arctic with climate warming, although these problems are unlikely to offset potential yield increases or potential for new crops in most cases. However, severe outbreaks could indeed have that effect. For example, studies suggest that climate warming in Finland will increase the incidence of potato blight to the point that it will significantly decrease potato yield in that country.

Lack of infrastructure, small population (limited local markets), and long distance to large markets are likely to continue to be major factors limiting agricultural development in most of the Arctic during this century.

Source & ©: ACIA Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment  (2004),
 Key Finding #3, Agricultural Opportunities are Likely to Expand, p.57

Arctic Climate Change foldout
Themes covered
Publications A-Z