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Climate Change Is Turning Parts Of The Arctic Brown

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Extreme weather events in the Arctic are leaving a trail of vulnerable plants. They also have a lower carbon intake and poor stress response. Known as the Arctic browning, this phenomenon may affect the survival of the region in the midst of climate change.  ( Michael Huard | Unsplash )

A UK study reveals another dark side of climate change in the Arctic. At least two extreme weather events lead to a phenomenon the researchers call as Arctic browning.

The Arctic is a frozen, icy tundra, but on certain seasons, such as spring, most of the area burst to life with green vegetation. Climate change, however, is threatening that as it influences at least two extreme weather events observed by the researchers from the University of Sheffield.

From Green To Brown

The actual effects of climate change can be difficult to measure. While it threatens the survival of certain species, Arctic warming can also result in green growth. It may also turn some parts of the landscape brown.

To understand the Arctic browning further, Rachael Treharne, Ph.D., and colleagues traveled to Lofoten Islands in Norway to assess the conditions of a heathland. During their stay in the winter, they observed two extreme weather activities due to high temperatures.

The first was one winter drought. It occurred when the snow that was supposed to insulate and protect the plants from the cold began to melt. When the plants became exposed, they quickly lost water. The high temperature also prevented the vegetation from receiving water from the frozen soil.

The high temperatures also resulted in a false spring. The plants lost their ability to tolerate the cold since they mistakenly believed it's already springtime.

Understanding The Effects

These weather events then led to significant changes in plant growth, which may also give scientists an idea about the future of climate change.

When the region experienced frost drought, the vulnerable plants started to turn brown or die. The exposure to high winter temperatures also significantly increased their stress levels based on the presence of red pigments known as anthocyanin on the leaves.

Decreasing Carbon Intake

All these have a profound effect on the ability of the Arctic to absorb carbon dioxide and the plants' ability to adapt to climate change.

"In more detail, net CO2 uptake-the primary measure of ecosystem carbon balance-was reduced by 48 percent in vegetation dominated by mortality, and 50 percent in that dominated by stress," said Treharne in Newsweek.

These are not the only changes happening in the Arctic. Shrubs are also growing taller, which can impact the reflection of sunlight back to space.

The researchers, though, admit they are still aren't sure about the actual effects of these changes to the world's climate.

"The scale of the browning we've seen in recent years suggests the reality may be more complex—calling into question our understanding of the role the Arctic plays in global climate, and whether we should expect Arctic ecosystems to slow or accelerate future climate change," noted Treharne.

Earlier, scientists revealed more than 35 percent of Arctic sea changes are due to natural causes.

The entire study is now published in Global Change Biology.

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