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We may have just 30 years to save precious Siberian tundra

As global temperatures rise, scientists warn one of the planet’s most unique ecosystems could disappear by 2050. 

The world is becoming warmer, with recent heatwaves in India, Pakistan, and other South Asian countries offering an extreme example of just how serious this problem now is. 

Elsewhere, signs of impact are subtler, but nevertheless all-too-clear for those responsible for studying climate change. The gradual advance north of the Siberian larch forest treeline is a case in point, with milder readings on thermometers indicative of how conditions that encourage these woodlands to grow are expanding further into Arctic regions.

trees on snow covered ground during sunset

While the spread of trees may sound like a climate win, as these species encroach on existing Siberian fauna, a team at the Alfred Wegener Institute warn we risk losing flora and fauna unique to the area, with around 5% of indigenous plants and animals considered endemic and can only be found in the Arctic. The problem is getting worse, too; the High North region is the world’s biggest climate change victim, with temperatures rising by 2C in the past 50 years.

‘For the Arctic Ocean and the sea ice, the current and future warming will have serious consequences,’ says Professor Ulrike Herzschuh, Head of the Polar Terrestrial Environmental Systems Division at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. ‘The environment on land will also change drastically. The broad expanses of tundra in Siberia and North America will be massively reduced, as the treeline, which is already slowly changing, rapidly advances northward in the near future.

‘In the worst-case scenario, there will be virtually no tundra left by the middle of the millennium. In the course of our study, we simulated this process for the tundra in northeast Russia,’ he continued. ‘The central question that concerned us was: which emissions path does humanity have to follow in order to preserve the tundra as a refuge for flora and fauna, as well as its role for the cultures of indigenous peoples and their traditional ties to the environment?’

The team conducted the study using the AWI vegetation model LAVESI, led by Dr Stefan Kruse, which pointed to a bleak future for tundra. Although initially the forestation would lag behind warming, it could eventually spread north at a rate of around 30km per decade, with less than 6% of tundra left by 2050. Only through ‘ambitious’ greenhouse gas reduction measures would 30% be possible to save, and even if cooling occurs over the course of this millennium tundra would not fully recover. 

‘What sets LAVESI apart is that it allows us to display the entire treeline at the level of individual trees,’ said Kruse. ‘The model portrays the entire lifecycle of Siberian larches in the transition zone to the tundra – from seed production and distribution, to germination, to fully grown trees. In this way, we can very realistically depict the advancing treeline in a warming climate.’

Earlier this month scientists unveiled new research to show that the warming Arctic winters are now having a damaging effect on subtropical Asia

Image credit: Hans-Jurgen Mager

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