October 22, 2018

As Ecosystems Heat Up, Tundra Changes Speed Up

Understanding the Functional Traits of Arctic and Alpine Tundra Plant Communities Will Enable Better Model Projections of How They Transform in Warmer Conditions


Changes in climate can affect tundra plants; changes in plants can in turn affect the climate.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Science

Rapid warming in Arctic and alpine regions is driving changes in tundra plant communities, with unknown consequences for the function of these ecosystems. A researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory contributed to an international study that combined more than 56,000 observations over nearly three decades to examine how the functional traits of tundra plants change over time and space.

Results suggest that plant height and closely related tundra ecosystem functions (e.g., carbon uptake) will show the most rapid changes with near-term warming, which is rapidly happening at high latitudes.

The Impact

The tundra is warming more rapidly than any other biome on Earth, and the potential ramifications are far-reaching due to global-scale vegetation-climate feedbacks. This study provides an understanding of how environmental factors shape biotic communities at the coldest extremes of the planet. The findings will enable improved model projections of tundra changes and related Earth system feedbacks with warming temperatures.


PNNL Researcher: Ben Bond-Lamberty

Reference: A.D. Bjorkman et al., "Change in Plant Functional Traits Across a Warming Tundra Biome." Nature (2018). [DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0563-7].

Core Capabilities


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: October 22, 2018