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At the last glacial maximum, vast ice sheets covered many continental areas. The beds of some shallow seas were exposed thereby connecting previously separated landmasses. Although some areas were ice-free and supported a flora and fauna, mean annual temperatures were 10–13°C colder than during the Holocene. Within a few millennia of the glacial maximum, deglaciation started, characterized by a series of climatic fluctuations between about 18 000 and 11 400 years ago. Following the general thermal maximum in the Holocene, there has been a modest overall cooling trend, superimposed upon which have been a series of millennial and centennial fluctuations in climate such as the “Little Ice Age spanning approximately the late 13th to early 19th centuries. Throughout the climatic fluctuations of the last 150 000 years, Arctic ecosystems and biota have been close to their minimum extent within the most recent 10 000 years. They suffered loss of diversity as a result of extinctions during the most recent large-magnitude rapid global warming at the end of the last glacial stage. Consequently, Arctic ecosystems and biota such as large vertebrates are already under pressure and are particularly vulnerable to current and projected future global warming. Evidence from the past indicates that the treeline will very probably advance, perhaps rapidly, into tundra areas, as it did during the early Holocene, reducing the extent of tundra and increasing the risk of species extinction. Species will very probably extend their ranges northwards, displacing Arctic species as in the past. However, unlike the early Holocene, when lower relative sea level allowed a belt of tundra to persist around at least some parts of the Arctic basin when treelines advanced to the present coast, sea level is very likely to rise in future, further restricting the area of tundra and other treeless Arctic ecosystems. The negative response of current Arctic ecosystems to global climatic conditions that are apparently without precedent during the Pleistocene is likely to be considerable, particularly as their exposure to co-occurring environmental changes (such as enhanced levels of UV-B, deposition of nitrogen compounds from the atmosphere, heavy metal and acidic pollution, radioactive contamination, increased habitat fragmentation) is also without precedent.
The individual of a species is the basic unit which responds to climate and UV-B changes, and it responds over a wide range of time scales. The diversity of animal, plant and microbial species appears to be low in the Arctic, and decreases from the boreal forests to the polar deserts of the extreme North but primitive species are particularly abundant. This latitudinal decline is associated with an increase in super-dominant species that occupy a wide range of habitats. Climate warming is expected to reduce the abundance and restrict the ranges of such species and to affect species at their northern range boundaries more than in the South: some Arctic animal and plant specialists could face extinction. Species most likely to expand into tundra are boreal species that currently exist as outlier populations in the Arctic. Many plant species have characteristics that allow them to survive short snow-free growing seasons, low solar angles, permafrost and low soil temperatures, low nutrient availability and physical disturbance. Many of these characteristics are likely to limit species. responses to climate warming, but mainly because of poor competitive ability compared with potential immigrant species. Terrestrial Arctic animals possess many adaptations that enable them to persist under a wide range of temperatures in the Arctic. Many escape unfavorable weather and resource shortage by winter dormancy or by migration. The biotic environment of Arctic animal species is relatively simple with few enemies, competitors, diseases, parasites and available food resources. Terrestrial Arctic animals are likely to be most vulnerable to warmer and drier summers, climatic changes that interfere with migration routes and staging areas, altered snow conditions and freeze-thaw cycles in winter, climate-induced disruption of the seasonal timing of reproduction and development, and influx of new competitors, predators, parasites and diseases. Arctic microorganisms are also well adapted to the Arctic's climate: some can metabolize at temperatures down to −39°C. Cyanobacteria and algae have a wide range of adaptive strategies that allow them to avoid, or at least minimize UV injury. Microorganisms can tolerate most environmental conditions and they have short generation times which can facilitate rapid adaptation to new environments. In contrast, Arctic plant and animal species are very likely to change their distributions rather than evolve significantly in response to warming.
Environmental manipulation experiments showed that species respond individualistically to each environmental-change variable. The greatest responses of plants were generally to nutrient, particularly nitrogen, addition. Summer warming experiments showed that woody plant responses were dominant and that mosses and lichens became less abundant. Responses to warming were controlled by moisture availability and snow cover. Many invertebrates increased population growth in response to summer warming, as long as desiccation was not induced. CO2 and UV-B enrichment experiments showed that plant and animal responses were small. However, some microorganisms and species of fungi were sensitive to increased UV-B and some intensive mutagenic actions could, perhaps, lead to unexpected epidemic outbreaks. Tundra soil heating, CO2 enrichment and amendment with mineral nutrients generally accelerated microbial activity. Algae are likely to dominate cyanobacteria in milder climates. Expected increases in winter freeze-thaw cycles leading to ice-crust formation are likely to severely reduce winter survival rate and disrupt the population dynamics of many terrestrial animals. A deeper snow cover is likely to restrict access to winter pastures by reindeer/caribou and their ability to fiee from predators while any earlier onset of the snow-free period is likely to stimulate increased plant growth. Initial species responses to climate change might occur at the sub-species level: an Arctic plant or animal species with high genetic/racial diversity has proved an ability to adapt to different environmental conditions in the past and is likely to do so also in the future. Indigenous knowledge, air photographs, satellite images and monitoring show that changes in the distributions of some species are already occurring: Arctic vegetation is becoming more shrubby and more productive, there have been recent changes in the ranges of caribou, and “new” species of insects and birds previously associated with areas south of the treeline have been recorded. In contrast, almost all Arctic breeding bird species are declining and models predict further quite dramatic reductions of the populations of tundra birds due to warming. Species–climate response surface models predict potential future ranges of current Arctic species that are often markedly reduced and displaced northwards in response to warming. In contrast, invertebrates and microorganisms are very likely to quickly expand their ranges northwards into the Arctic.
Species individualistic responses to warming and increased UV-B radiation are moderated by the responses of neighbors within communities, and trophic interactions within ecosystems. All of these responses lead to changes in ecosystem structure. Experimental manipulation of environmental factors expected to change at high latitudes showed that summer warming of tundra vegetation has generally led to smaller changes than fertilizer addition. Some of the factors manipulated have strong effects on the structure of Arctic ecosystems but the effects vary regionally, with the greatest response of plant and invertebrate communities being observed at the coldest locations. Arctic invertebrate communities are very likely to respond rapidly to warming whereas microbial biomass and nutrient stocks are more stable. Experimentally enhanced UV-B radiation altered the community composition of gram-negative bacteria and fungi, but not that of plants. Increased plant productivity due to warmer summers may dominate food-web dynamics. Trophic interactions of tundra and sub-Arctic forest plant-based food webs are centered on a few dominant animal species which often have cyclic population fluctuations that lead to extremely high peak abundances in some years. Population cycles of small rodents and insect defoliators such as the autumn moth affect the structure and diversity of tundra and forest-tundra vegetation and the viability of a number of specialist predators and parasites. Ice crusting in warmer winters is likely to reduce the accessibility of plant food to lemmings, while deep snow may protect them from snowsurface predators. In Fennoscandia, there is evidence already for a pronounced shift in small rodent community structure and dynamics that have resulted in a decline of predators that specialize in feeding on small rodents. Climate is also likely to alter the role of insect pests in the birch forest system: warmer winters may increase survival of eggs and expand the range of the insects. Insects that harass reindeer in the summer are also likely to become more widespread, abundant and active during warmer summers while refuges for reindeer/caribou on glaciers and late snow patches will probably disappear.
Historically, the function of Arctic ecosystems in terms of cycles of nutrients and carbon has led to low levels of primary production and exchanges of energy, water and greenhouse gases have led to low local and regional cooling. Sequestration of carbon from atmospheric CO2, in extensive, cold organic soils and the high albedo from low, snow-covered vegetation have had impacts on regional climate. However, many aspects of the functioning of Arctic ecosystems are sensitive to changes in climate and its impacts on biodiversity. The current Arctic climate results in slow rates of organic matter decomposition. Arctic ecosystems therefore tend to accumulate organic matter and elements despite low inputs. As a result, soil-available elements like nitrogen and phosphorus are key limitations to increases in carbon fixation and further biomass and organic matter accumulation. Climate warming is expected to increase carbon and element turnover, particularly in soils, which may lead to initial losses of elements but eventual, slow recovery. Individual species and species diversity have clear impacts on element inputs and retention in Arctic ecosystems. Effects of increased CO2 and UV-B on whole ecosystems, on the other hand, are likely to be small although effects on plant tissue chemisty, decomposition and nitrogen fixation may become important in the long-term. Cycling of carbon in trace gas form is mainly as CO2 and CH4. Most carbon loss is in the form of CO2, produced by both plants and soil biota. Carbon emissions as methane from wet and moist tundra ecosystems are about 5% of emissions as CO2 and are responsive to warming in the absence of any other changes. Winter processes and vegetation type also affect CH4 emissions as well as exchanges of energy between biosphere and atmosphere. Arctic ecosystems exhibit the largest seasonal changes in energy exchange of any terrestrial ecosystem because of the large changes in albedo from late winter, when snow reflects most incoming radiation, to summer when the ecosystem absorbs most incoming radiation. Vegetation profoundly influences the water and energy exchange of Arctic ecosystems. Albedo during the period of snow cover declines from tundra to forest tundra to deciduous forest to evergreen forest. Shrubs and trees increase snow depth which in turn increases winter soil temperatures. Future changes in vegetation driven by climate change are therefore, very likely to profoundly alter regional climate.
Biological and physical processes in the Arctic system operate at various temporal and spatial scales to impact large-scale feedbacks and interactions with the earth system. There are four main potential feedback mechanisms between the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and the global climate system: albedo, greenhouse gas emissions or uptake by ecosystems, greenhouse gas emissions from methane hydrates, and increased freshwater fluxes that could affect the thermohaline circulation. All these feedbacks are controlled to some extent by changes in ecosystem distribution and character and particularly by large-scale movement of vegetation zones. Indications from a few, full annual measurements of CO2 fluxes are that currently the source areas exceed sink areas in geographical distribution. The little available information on CH4 sources indicates that emissions at the landscape level are of great importance for the total greenhouse balance of the circumpolar North. Energy and water balances of Arctic landscapes are also important feedback mechanisms in a changing climate. Increasing density and spatial expansion of vegetation will cause a lowering of the albedo and more energy to be absorbed on the ground. This effect is likely to exceed the negative feedback of increased C sequestration in greater primary productivity resulting from the displacements of areas of polar desert by tundra, and areas of tundra by forest. The degradation of permafrost has complex consequences for trace gas dynamics. In areas of discontinuous permafrost, warming, will lead to a complete loss of the permafrost. Depending on local hydrological conditions this may in turn lead to a wetting or drying of the environment with subsequent implications for greenhouse gas fluxes. Overall, the complex interactions between processes contributing to feedbacks, variability over time and space in these processes, and insufficient data have generated considerable uncertainties in estimating the net effects of climate change on terrestrial feedbacks to the climate system. This uncertainty applies to magnitude, and even direction of some of the feedbacks.
An assessment of impacts on Arctic terrestrial ecosystems has emphasized geographical variability in responses of species and ecosystems to environmental change. This variability is usually associated with north-south gradients in climate, biodiversity, vegetation zones, and ecosystem structure and function. It is clear, however, that significant east-west variability in environment, ecosystem structure and function, environmental history, and recent climate variability is also important. Some areas have cooled while others have become warmer. Also, east-west differences between geographical barriers of oceans, archipelagos and mountains have contributed significantly in the past to the ability of species and vegetation zones to relocate in response to climate changes, and they have created the isolation necessary for genetic differentiation of populations and biodiversity hot-spots to occur. These barriers will also affect the ability of species to relocate during projected future warming. To include this east-west variability and also to strike a balance between overgeneralization and overspecialization, the ACIA identified four major sub regions based on large-scale differences in weather and climate-shaping factors. Drawing on information, mostly model output that can be related to the four ACIA subregions, it is evident that geographical barriers to species re-location, particularly the distribution of landmasses and separation by seas, will affect the northwards shift in vegetation zones. The geographical constraints—or facilitation —of northward movement of vegetation zones will affect the future storage and release of carbon, and the exchange of energy and water between biosphere and atmosphere. In addition, differences in the ability of vegetation zones to re-locate will affect the biodiversity associated with each zone while the number of species threatened by climate change varies greatly between subregions with a significant hot-spot in Beringia. Overall, the subregional synthesis demonstrates the difficulty of generalizing projections of responses of ecosystem structure and function, species loss, and biospheric feedbacks to the climate system for the whole Arctic region and implies a need for a far greater understanding of the spatial variability in the responses of terrestrial arctic ecosystems to climate change.
An assessment of the impacts of changes in climate and UV-B radiation on Arctic terrestrial ecosystems, made within the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment (ACIA), highlighted the profound implications of projected warming in particular for future ecosystem services, biodiversity and feedbacks to climate. However, although our current understanding of ecological processes and changes driven by climate and UV-B is strong in some geographical areas and in some disciplines, it is weak in others. Even though recently the strength of our predictions has increased dramatically with increased research effort in the Arctic and the introduction of new technologies, our current understanding is still constrained by various uncertainties. The assessment is based on a range of approaches that each have uncertainties, and on data sets that are often far from complete. Uncertainties arise from methodologies and conceptual frameworks, from unpredictable surprises, from lack of validation of models, and from the use of particular scenarios, rather than predictions, of future greenhouse gas emissions and climates. Recommendations to reduce the uncertainties are wide-ranging and relate to all disciplines within the assessment. However, a repeated theme is the critical importance of achieving an adequate spatial and long-term coverage of experiments, observations and monitoring of environmental changes and their impacts throughout the sparsely populated and remote region that is the Arctic.