, Volume 79, Issue 3-4, pp 213-241
Date: 20 Oct 2006

Arctic climate change with a 2 C global warming: Timing, climate patterns and vegetation change

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The signatories to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are charged with stabilizing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous interference with the climate system. A number of nations, organizations and scientists have suggested that global mean temperature should not rise over 2 C above preindustrial levels. However, even a relatively moderate target of 2 C has serious implications for the Arctic, where temperatures are predicted to increase at least 1.5 to 2 times as fast as global temperatures. High latitude vegetation plays a significant role in the lives of humans and animals, and in the global energy balance and carbon budget. These ecosystems are expected to be among the most strongly impacted by climate change over the next century. To investigate the potential impact of stabilization of global temperature at 2 C, we performed a study using data from six Global Climate Models (GCMs) forced by four greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, the BIOME4 biogeochemistry-biogeography model, and remote sensing data. GCM data were used to predict the timing and patterns of Arctic climate change under a global mean warming of 2 C. A unified circumpolar classification recognizing five types of tundra and six forest biomes was used to develop a map of observed Arctic vegetation. BIOME4 was used to simulate the vegetation distributions over the Arctic at the present and for a range of 2 C global warming scenarios. The GCMs simulations indicate that the earth will have warmed by 2 C relative to preindustrial temperatures by between 2026 and 2060, by which stage the area-mean annual temperature over the Arctic (60–90N) will have increased by between 3.2 and 6.6 C. Forest extent is predicted by BIOME4 to increase in the Arctic on the order of 3 × 106 km2 or 55% with a corresponding 42% reduction in tundra area. Tundra types generally also shift north with the largest reductions in the prostrate dwarf-shrub tundra, where nearly 60% of habitat is lost. Modeled shifts in the potential northern limit of trees reach up to 400 km from the present tree line, which may be limited by dispersion rates. Simulated physiological effects of the CO2 increase (to ca. 475 ppm) at high latitudes were small compared with the effects of the change in climate. The increase in forest area of the Arctic could sequester 600 Pg of additional carbon, though this effect is unlikely to be realized over next century.

Both authors contributed equally to the research and writing of the article.