How Arctic Ecosystems are Changing

A climate station in the alpine tundra of the Arctic.
A climate station in Noatak National Preserve. Climate is a main driver of ecosystems.
The following two articles highlight projected changes in Arctic ecosystems and wildlife habitats due to climate changes and impacts on vegetation communities.

Projected changes in wildlife habitats in Arctic natural areas of northwest Alaska


We project the effects of transitional changes among 60 vegetation and other land cover types (“ecotypes”) in northwest Alaska over the 21st century on habitats of 162 bird and 39 mammal species known or expected to occur regularly in the region. This analysis, encompassing a broad suite of arctic and boreal wildlife species, entailed building wildlife-habitat matrices denoting levels of use of each ecotype by each species, and projecting habitat changes under historic and expected accelerated future rates of change from increasing mean annual air temperature based on the average of 5 global climate models under the A1B emissions scenario, and from potential influence of a set of 23 biophysical drivers. Under historic rates of change, we project that 52 % of the 201 species will experience an increase in medium- and high-use habitats, 3 % no change, and 45 % a decrease, and that a greater proportion of mammal species (62 %) will experience habitat declines than will bird species (50 %). Outcomes become more dire (more species showing habitat loss) under projections made from effects of biophysical drivers and especially from increasing temperature, although species generally associated with increasing shrub and tree ecotypes will likely increase in distribution. Changes in wildlife habitats likely will also affect trophic cascades, ecosystem function, and ecosystem services; of particular significance are the projected declines in habitats of most small mammals that form the prey base for mesocarnivores and raptors, and habitat declines in 25 of the 50 bird and mammal species used for subsistence hunting and trapping.

Marcot, B. G., M. T. Jorgenson, J. Lawler, C. M. Handel, and A. R. DeGange. 2015. Projected changes in wildlife habitats in Arctic natural areas of northwest Alaska. Climatic Change 130(2):145-154.

Projected changes in diverse ecosystems from climate warming and biophysical drivers in northwest Alaska


Climate warming affects arctic and boreal ecosystems by interacting with numerous biophysical factors across heterogeneous landscapes. To assess potential effects of warming on diverse local-scale ecosystems (ecotypes) across northwest Alaska, we compiled data on historical areal changes over the last 25-50 years. Based on historical rates of change relative to time and temperature, we developed three state-transition models to project future changes in area for 60 ecotypes involving 243 potential transitions during three 30-year periods (ending 2040, 2070, 2100). The time model, assuming changes over the past 30 years continue at the same rate, projected a net change, or directional shift, of 6 % by 2100. The temperature model, using past rates of change relative to the past increase in regional mean annual air temperatures (1 °C/30 year), projected a net change of 17 % in response to expected warming of 2, 4, and 6 °C at the end of the three periods. A rate-adjusted temperature model, which adjusted transition rates (±50 %) based on assigned feedbacks associated with 23 biophysical drivers, estimated a net change of 13 %, with 33 ecotypes gaining and 23 ecotypes losing area. Major drivers included shrub and tree expansion, fire, succession, and thermokarst. Overall, projected changes will be modest over the next century even though climate warming increased transition rates up to 9 fold. The strength of this state-transition modeling is that it used a large dataset of past changes to provide a comprehensive assessment of likely future changes associated with numerous drivers affecting the full diversity of ecosystems across a broad region.

Jorgenson, M. T., B. G. Marcot, D. K. Swanson, J. C. Jorgenson, and A. R. DeGange. 2015. Projected changes in diverse ecosystems from climate warming and biophysical drivers in northwest Alaska. Climatic Change 130(2):131-144.