Winter biological processes could help convert arctic tundra to shrubland

TitleWinter biological processes could help convert arctic tundra to shrubland
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2005
AuthorsSturm, M, Schimel, J, Michaelson, G, Welker, JM, Oberbauer, SF, Liston, GE, Fahnestock, J, Romanovsky, VE
Date PublishedJan
ISBN Number0006-3568
Keywordsactive layer, air-temperature, climate change, climate-change, cold season, high-latitudes, land-cover change, mesic grassland, microbes, microbial activity, nitrogen mineralization, shrubs, snow, snow-depth, tundra

In arctic Alaska, air temperatures have warmed 0.5 degrees Celsius (degreesC) per decade for the past 30 years, winter. Over the same period, shrub abundance has increased, perhaps a harbinger of a conversion of tundra to shrubland. Evidence suggests that winter biological processes are contributing to this conversion through a positive feedback that involves the snow-holding capacity of shrubs, the insulating properties of snow, a soil layer that has a high water content because it overlies nearly impermeable permafrost, and hardy microbes that can maintain metabolic activity at temperatures of -6degreesC or lower. Increasing shrub abundance leads to deeper snow, which promotes higher winter soil temperatures, greater microbial activity and more plant-available nitrogen. High levels of soil nitrogen favor shrub growth the follow- summer. With climate models predicting continued warming, large areas of tundra could become converted to shrubland, with winter processes like those described here possibly playing a critical role.

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