IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

4.4.6 Tundra and Arctic/Antarctic ecosystems

Properties, goods and services

Tundra denotes vegetation and ecosystems north of the closed boreal forest tree line, covering an area of about 5.6 million km2, but here we also include ecosystems at circumpolar latitudes, notably the sea-ice biome in both hemispheres (e.g., Arrigo and Thomas, 2004; Section 4.4.9), and sub-Antarctic islands (but see also Chapter 15). Ecosystem services include carbon sequestration, climate regulation, biodiversity and cultural maintenance, fuel, and food and fibre production (Chapin et al., 2005a, p. 721-728). Climate regulation is likely to be dominated by positive feedbacks between climate and albedo changes through diminishing snow cover and, eventually, expanding forests (Chapin et al., 2005b) and net emissions of greenhouse gasses, notably methane. The Arctic significantly contributes to global biodiversity (Chapin et al., 2005a; Usher et al., 2005). Local mixed economies of cash and subsistence depend strongly on the harvest of local resources, food preparation, storage, distribution and consumption. This forms a unique body of cultural knowledge traditionally transmitted from generation to generation (Hassol, 2004a).

Key vulnerabilities

Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems (particularly ombrotrophic bog communities, see Glossary) above permafrost were considered likely to be most vulnerable to climatic changes, since impacts may turn Arctic regions from a net carbon sink to a net source (Gitay et al., 2001). Literature since the TAR suggests that changes in albedo and an increased release of methane from carbon stocks (e.g., Christensen et al., 2004), whose magnitudes were previously substantially underestimated, will lead to positive radiative climate forcing throughout the Arctic region (Camill, 2005; Lelieveld, 2006; Walter et al., 2006; Zimov et al., 2006). Adverse impacts, including pollution (see also Chapter 15), were projected for species such as marine birds, seals, polar bears, tundra birds and tundra ungulates (Gitay et al., 2001). Unique endemic biodiversity (e.g., polar bears, Box 4.3) as well as tundra-dependent species such as migratory birds (e.g., waterfowl, Box 4.5, 4.4.8, Table 4.1) have been confirmed to be facing increasing extinction risks, with concomitant threats to the livelihoods and food security for indigenous peoples.

Box 4.3. Polar bears – a species in peril?

There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears (Ursus maritimus) worldwide, mostly inhabiting the annual sea ice over the continental shelves and inter-island archipelagos of the circumpolar Arctic, where they may wander for thousands of kilometres per year. They are specialised predators on ice-breeding seals and are therefore dependent on sea ice for survival. Female bears require nourishment after emerging in spring from a 5 to 7 month fast in nursing dens (Ramsay and Stirling, 1988), and are thus very dependent on close proximity between land and sea ice before it breaks up. Continuous access to sea ice allows bears to hunt throughout the year, but in areas where the sea ice melts completely each summer, they are forced to spend several months in tundra fasting on stored fat reserves until freeze-up.

Polar bears face great challenges from the effects of climatic warming (Stirling and Derocher, 1993; Stirling et al., 1999; Derocher et al., 2004), as projected reductions in sea ice will drastically shrink marine habitat for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals and other animals (Hassol, 2004b). Break-up of the sea ice on the western Hudson Bay, Canada, already occurs about 3 weeks earlier than in the early 1970s, resulting in polar bears in this area coming ashore earlier with reduced fat reserves (a 15% decline in body condition), fasting for longer periods of time and having reduced productivity (Stirling et al., 1999). Preliminary estimates suggest that the Western Hudson Bay population has declined from 1,200 bears in 1987 to fewer than 950 in 2004. Although these changes are specific to one sub-population, similar impacts on other sub-populations of polar bears can be reasonably expected. In 2005, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group concluded that the IUCN Red List classification of the polar bear should be upgraded from Least Concern to Vulnerable based on the likelihood of an overall decline in the size of the total population of more than 30% within the next 35 to 50 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering a petition to list the polar bear as a threatened species based in part on future risks to the species from climate change. If sea ice declines according to some projections (Meehl et al., 2007, Figure 10.13; Figure 4.4, Table 4.1) polar bears will face a high risk of extinction with warming of 2.8°C above pre-industrial (range 2.5-3.0°C, Table 4.1, No. 42). Similar consequences are facing other ice-dependent species, not only in the Arctic but also in the Antarctic (Chapter 1; Barbraud and Weimerskirch, 2001; Croxall et al., 2002).


Global warming is projected to be most pronounced at high latitudes (Phoenix and Lee, 2004; Meehl et al., 2007; Christensen et al., 2007). Ongoing rapid climatic changes will force tundra polewards at unprecedented rates (Velichko, 2002), causing lagged responses in its slow-growing plant communities (Camill and Clark, 2000; Chapin et al., 2000; Callaghan et al., 2004a, 2004c; Velichko et al., 2004). Movements of some species of habitat-creating plants (edificators) require large spread rates exceeding their migrational capacity (Callaghan et al., 2005). Poleward taiga encroachment into tundra is also likely to lag these changes (see Section 4.4.5 and e.g., Callaghan et al., 2004b). Projections of vegetation changes in the northern Arctic suggest that by about 2080, 17.6% (range 14-23%) replacement of the current polar desert by tundra vegetation will have begun (Callaghan et al., 2005). An eventual replacement of dwarf shrub tundra by shrub tundra is projected for the Canadian Arctic by 2100 (Kaplan et al., 2003). Experimental manipulations of air temperature at eleven locations across the tundra also show that tundra plant communities change substantially through shifts in species dominance, canopy height and diversity (Walker et al., 2006), with cryptogams being particularly vulnerable (Cornelissen et al., 2001; van Wijk et al., 2004). A warming of 1-3°C caused a short-term diversity decrease, but generalisations are unwarranted because of insufficiently long experimentation time (Graglia et al., 2001; Dormann and Woodin, 2002; van Wijk et al., 2004; Walker et al., 2006).

The thermally stable oceanic climate of the sub-Antarctic Marion Island appears to be changing, with a rise in annual mean surface air temperature of 1.2°C between 1969 and 1999. Annual precipitation decreased more or less simultaneously, and the 1990s was the driest in the island’s five decades with records (Smith, 2002). These changes may be linked to a shift in phase of the semi-annual oscillation in the Southern Hemisphere after about 1980 (Rouault et al., 2005). Climatic change will directly affect the indigenous biota of sub-Antarctic islands (Smith, 2002; Barnes et al., 2006). Experimental drying of the keystone cushion plant species Azorella selago on Marion Island revealed measurable negative impacts after only a few months (Le Roux et al., 2005).

While summer food availability may increase for some vertebrates (Hinzman et al., 2005), formation of ice-crust at critical winter times may reduce abundance of food below snow (Yoccoz and Ims, 1999; Aanes et al., 2002; Inkley et al., 2004). Tundra wetland habitat for migrant birds may dry progressively (Hinzman et al., 2005; Smith et al., 2005). Many species of Arctic-breeding shorebirds and waterfowl are projected to undergo major population declines as tundra habitat shrinks (Box 4.5, Table 4.1). In contrast, northern range expansions of more southern species are expected, e.g., moose and red fox (Callaghan et al., 2005). Some colonisers might ultimately need to be considered ‘invasive’ species (e.g., North American Mink – Neuvonen, 2004), such as presently-restricted populations of southern shrub species that are likely to spread in a warmer climate (Forbes, 1995) leading to possibly increased carbon sequestration (Sturm et al., 2001; Tape et al., 2006; for a discussion of overall consequences for climate, see end of Section 4.4.6). For arctic species such as the polar bear, increasing risks of extinction are associated with the projected large decrease in the extent of the sea-ice biome and sea-ice cover (Box 4.3).

Significant changes in tundra are of two main types (Velichko et al., 2005), namely in vegetation structure (and related albedo), and in below-ground processes related to a combined increase in temperature, increase in depth of the active layer (see Glossary), and moisture content. These will promote paludification (see Glossary; Crawford et al., 2003), thermokarst processes (see Glossary), and increase the dryness of raised areas. Moisture supply substantially influences the state of permafrost, one of the most important components of the tundra landscape (Anisimov et al., 2002a, 2002b). Increasing active layer instability causes greater mixing and shifting of the soil’s mineral matrix, damaging plant roots. Generally this will favour moisture-loving species (e.g., sedges), while the peat-bog vegetation over permafrost could experience drier conditions (Camill, 2005).

Substantial recent upward revisions (Zimov et al., 2006) of carbon stocks (Figure 4.1) in permafrost and yedoma (see Glossary), and measurements of methane releases from north Siberian thaw lakes (Walter et al., 2006), Scandinavian mires (Christensen et al., 2004) and Canadian permafrost (Camill, 2005) now show tundra to be a significantly larger atmospheric methane source than previously recognised. Current estimates of northern wetland methane emissions increase by 10-63% based on northern Siberian estimates alone. This methane source comprises a positive feedback to climate change, as thaw lakes (Walter et al., 2006) and mires (Christensen et al., 2004) are expanding in response to warming. While thermokarst-derived emissions are currently modest relative to anthropogenic sources, a potential stock of about 500 Pg of labile carbon in yedoma permafrost (Figure 4.1) could greatly intensify the positive feedback to high-latitude warming trends that are currently projected (Sazonova et al., 2004; Mack et al., 2004; Lelieveld, 2006; Zimov et al., 2006).

Changes in albedo associated with snow cover loss, and eventual invasion of tundra vegetation by evergreen coniferous trees, is likely to decrease regional albedo significantly and lead to a warming effect greater than the cooling projected from the increased carbon uptake by advancing trees (Section 4.4.5) and shrubs (Betts, 2000; Sturm et al., 2001, 2005; Chapin et al., 2005b; McGuire and Chapin, 2006; McGuire et al., 2007). Remote sensing already shows that tundra has greened over the past 20 years (Sitch et al., 2007). However, the potential for CO2 sequestration varies from region to region (Callaghan et al., 2005) and model uncertainties are high (Sitch et al., 2007), since migration rates (Section 4.4.5), changes in hydrology, fire, insect pest outbreaks and human impacts relevant to the carbon cycle are poorly represented (see also Sections 4.4.1 and 4.4.5).