Amplified greenhouse effect shifts North’s growing seasons
An international team of university and NASA scientists examined the relationship between changes in surface temperature and vegetation growth from 45 degrees north latitude to the Arctic Ocean. Results (published in the journal Nature Climate Change) show temperature and vegetation growth at northern latitudes now resemble those found 4 degrees to 6 degrees of latitude farther south as recently as 1982.
“Higher northern latitudes are getting warmer, Arctic sea ice and the duration of snow cover are diminishing, the growing season is getting longer and plants are growing more,” said Ranga Myneni of Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment. “In the north’s Arctic and boreal areas, the characteristics of the seasons are changing, leading to great disruptions for plants and related ecosystems.”
Myneni and colleagues used satellite data to quantify vegetation changes at different latitudes from 1982 to 2011. Data used in this study came from NOAA’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometers (AVHRR) onboard a series of polar- orbiting satellites and NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on the Terra and Aqua satellites.
As a result of enhanced warming and a longer growing season, large patches of vigorously productive vegetation now span a third of the northern landscape, or more than 3.5 million square miles (9 million square kilometers). That is an area about equal to the contiguous United States. This landscape resembles what was found 250 to 430 miles (400 to 700 kilometers) to the south in 1982.
“It’s like Winnipeg, Manitoba, moving to Minneapolis-Saint Paul in only 30 years,” said co-author Compton Tucker of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The Arctic’s greenness is visible on the ground as an increasing abundance of tall shrubs and trees in locations all over the circumpolar Arctic. Greening in the adjacent boreal areas is more pronounced in Eurasia than in North America.
An amplified greenhouse effect is driving the changes, according to Myneni. Increased concentrations of heat-trapping gasses, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane, cause Earth’s surface, ocean and lower atmosphere to warm. Warming reduces the extent of polar sea ice and snow cover, and, in turn, the darker ocean and land surfaces absorb more solar energy, thus further heating the air above them.
“This sets in motion a cycle of positive reinforcement between warming and loss of sea ice and snow cover, which we call the amplified greenhouse effect,” Myneni said. “The greenhouse effect could be further amplified in the future as soils in the north thaw, releasing potentially significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane.”