Tundra researchers
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A South Florida university may not be the first place that comes to mind when considering research underway to better understand changes in plant life in the Arctic tundra and the relationship to the changing climate.

But when it comes to decades of research on Arctic tundra plants about 189 miles north of the Arctic Circle and on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range, what better place to start than Florida International University in balmy Miami, a public research university with a student body numbering about 58,000.

Biology professor and department head Steve Oberbauer has been heading up to Alaska for decades with a focus on the tundra and how its various plant communities are reacting to the warming climate. Monitoring changes in vegetation – changes in when plants flower, when they put out leaves, and when their fruits are first ripe – Oberbauer says the tundra permafrost soils hold about twice as much carbon as there now is in the atmosphere.

“If the flowers come out two weeks earlier, but the insect that pollinates that flower is not coming out also, then that plant is not going to get pollinated”: no insects, no pollination, no fruit; no fruit for the bears; and no fruit for people looking to them for subsistence.

As the tundra – which post-doc research colleague Jeremy May describes simply as a “vast frozen swamp” – thaws more quickly, it then continues to pick up the pace, leading to progressively earlier thaws. “It’s a positive feedback loop not found in other places,” May says in a video of their 2018 field trip produced by FIU videographer Timothy Long.

The three-person FIU research team, consisting of Oberbauer, May, and Matthew Simon, timed their arrivals in the Arctic tundra to coincide with the completion of the annual snowmelt, just before plants start greening up. Setting up a 50-meter long by two-meter wide transect that crosses a variety of plant community types, they monitor the phenology of the plants manually and with a mobile instrumented platform with an array of sensors similar to those on satellites.

The plants’ productivity “is the proxy for the melting of the permafrost,” May says. As more and more permafrost melts, shrubs can grow taller, and the overall plant community changes. Over the years, FIU researchers have found big increases in the number of shrubs and decreases in lichen and mosses. They say that release of the extensive carbon found in the pervasive tundra peat could push global temperature increases well beyond the two degree Celsius goal that nations have identified in the Paris Climate Agreement as an important target.

The vast volume of data gathered through their research is archived in the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Data Center database, where it’s free for researchers and others to use. Calling the tundra the “canary in the coal mine” for where the planet is headed, they say the trove of data will be valuable to researchers decades from now wanting to establish the baselines for change.

Given the complexity of those changes, they say their research findings will help paint a clearer picture of “what is happening and what are the drivers of what is happening” as the planet warms. Their video is posted here with their permission.

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Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...