Global Warming

Climate change made the Arctic greener. Now parts of it are turning brown

The Chugach people of southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula have picked berries for generations. Tart blueberries and sweet, raspberry-like salmonberries — an Alaska favorite — are baked into pies and boiled into jams. But in the summer of 2009, the bushes stayed brown and the berries never came. For three more years, harvests failed.

The berry bushes had been ravaged by caterpillars of geometrid moths — the Bruce spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) and the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata). The insects had laid their eggs in the fall, and as soon as the leaf buds began growing in the spring, the eggs hatched and the inchworms nibbled the stalks bare.

At the peak of the multiyear outbreak, the caterpillars climbed from the berry bushes into trees. The pests munched through foliage from Port Graham, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, to Wasilla, north of Anchorage, about 300 kilometers away. In summer, thick brown-gray layers of denuded willows, alders and birches lined the mountainsides above stretches of Sitka spruce.

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For more than 35 years, satellites circling the Arctic have detected a “greening” trend in Earth’s northernmost landscapes. Scientists have attributed this verdant flush to more vigorous plant growth and a longer growing season, propelled by higher temperatures that come with climate change. But recently, satellites have been picking up a decline in tundra greenness in some parts of the Arctic. Those areas appear to be “browning.”

While global warming has propelled widespread trends in tundra greening, extreme winter weather can spur local browning events. In recent years, in some parts of the Arctic, extraordinary warm winter weather, sometimes paired with rainfall, has put tundra vegetation under enormous stress and caused plants to lose freeze resistance, dry up or die — and turn brown.

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