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Lands surface change on Alaska tundra creating longer, warmer summers in Arctic

A gradual lengthening of the snow-free season in Alaska's tundra, and a corresponding northward progression of the growth of shrubs and trees, may be creating a cycle of warmer and longer summers in the Alaskan Arctic according to a new study to be published in the Sept. 22, 2005, issue of Science Express.

The resulting atmospheric heating in the region of northern Alaska is equivalent to what might be observed if there was a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Continuation of this trend could further amplify atmospheric heating in the region by two to seven times and could possibly contribute to broader changes in climate.

"We suggest that a noticeable summer warming trend in Alaska is best explained by a lengthening of the snow-free season there," said Howard E. Epstein, an associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the new study. The scientists determined that the increasing summer temperatures in northern Alaska could not be attributed to regional atmospheric circulation patterns or to a reduction in sea ice in the summer or to an increase in cloud cover. The observed summer temperature increases are likely related to a global warming trend that has led to a longer snow-free season and an increase in the extent of woody vegetation. Both of these changes increase the amount of solar radiation that goes into heating rather than being reflected back to the atmosphere.

Epstein said that since the early 1960s the spring thaw in Alaska's tundra country is arriving an average of 2.3 days earlier each decade. As a result, plants in the region now "leaf out" about 2.7 days earlier than in previous decades. Likewise, the first freeze each year is arriving slightly later, allowing plants to extend their growing season. The longer growing season is allowing shrubs and trees to slowly migrate northward. The increasing woody vegetation is further warming the near-surface atmosphere by absorbing rat
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22-Sep-2005


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