Warming in the Arctic is stimulating the growth of vegetation and could affect the delicate energy balance there, causing an additional climate warming of several degrees over the next few decades. A new study indicates that as the number of dark-colored shrubs in the otherwise stark Arctic tundra rises, the amount of solar energy absorbed could increase winter heating by up to 70 percent. The research will be published 7 September in the first issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, published by the American Geophysical Union.
The study in western Alaska during the winters in 2000-2002 shows how the increasing abundance of high-latitude vegetation, particularly shrubs, interacts with the snow and affects Earths albedo, or the reflection of the Suns rays from the surface. The paper, which also analyzes the ramifications of continued plant growth in the tundra regions, written by researchers at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and at Colorado State University. It presents the first evidence that shrub growth could alter the winter energy balance of the Arctic and subarctic tundra in a substantial way.
The authors measured five adjacent sites in subarctic Alaska. They included areas covered by continuous forest canopy, others dotted with shrubs, and some of barren tundra. They found that mid-winter albedo was greatly reduced where shrubs were exposed and that melting began several weeks earlier in the spring at these locations, as compared to snow-covered terrain. The researchers note, however, that the shrubs branches produced shade that slowed the rate of melting, so that the snowmelt finished at approximately the same time for all the sites they examined.
Harvey Leifert | EurekAlert!
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