Year 3, Month 6, Day 14: Sixteen Tundras?

The New York Times notes that things are changing in the soon-to-be-not-so-very-much Frozen North:

Even as insect infestations and other factors accompanying warming have led to the “browning” of some stretches of boreal forest between temperate regions and the Arctic tundra, the tundra appears to be greening in a big way, various studies have shown. The newest such work, focused on scrubby windswept regions along Russia’s northwest Arctic coast, has found a particularly noteworthy shift is under way.

In this part of the Arctic, which could be a bellwether for changes to come elsewhere with greenhouse-driven warming, what might be called pop-up forests are forming. Low tundra shrubs, many of which are willow and alder species, have rapidly grown into small trees over the last 50 years, according to the study, led by scientists from the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford and the Arctic Center of the University of Lapland. The researchers foresee a substantial additional local warming influence from this change in landscapes, with the darker foliage absorbing sunlight that would otherwise be reflected back to space. But the fast-motion shift to forests will likely absorb carbon dioxide, as well.

A particularly interesting aspect of this work, to my eye, is how it reveals the potential for fast-motion responses of ecosystems to environmental change in the far north. In work I covered in 2007, botanists found that Arctic plant species were extremely responsive to fairly rapid climate shifts in the past.

Short-term thinking will whack us seriously. We get too soon old and too late smart. Sent June 4:

If you’ve got a short attention span, climate change seems to be offering all kinds of unexpected bonuses in the natural world. When Arctic bushes turn into trees far faster than scientists expected, that’s a pleasing turn of affairs at first glance — after all, trees are good. Everyone likes trees.

It’s only when your perception goes beyond a five-to-ten year span that things take an ominous turn. If climate change keeps accelerating, many plant and animal species will die out, unable to keep up with the rapid environmental transformations. While humans are famously adaptable and have shown themselves capable of survival in very extreme circumstances, we have never in recorded history experienced anything like the chaos climatologists are now nervously anticipating.

But this is only worrying if you think in decades, centuries, and millennia. Our politicians, who do their thinking in two-year election cycles, aren’t worried. They should be.

Warren Senders

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