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Using satellite observations to study photosynthetic trends in northern circumpolar high latitudes

Using time series analyses of a 22-year record of satellite observations across the northern circumpolar high latitudes, scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center are assessing trends in vegetation photosynthetic activity. The results indicate that tundra areas consistently and predominantly show greening trends while forested areas show browning, indicating that the boreal forest biome might be responding to climate change in previously unexpected ways. This research is highlighted in the current issue of Earth Interactions.

According to Andrew Bunn, lead author of the paper and a post-doctoral fellow at the Center, "This research suggests that the high latitudes might not be responding to climate change as previously thought. If the ability of boreal forests to capture and store carbon in a warmer world is not as great as we've previously supposed, then we will have to think differently about how the planet will respond to continuing emissions of carbon dioxide."

All land surfaces above 50 N, excluding the glaciers of Greenland, were included in this study. Growing seasons were defined as May to August though early and late growing season periods were also considered. Three primary data sets derived from polar-orbiting satellites were used.

Overall, tundra areas show marked greening over the entire growing season. These patterns were consistent with relatively simple climate response seen in related work in North America, where areas responded to summer maximum temperatures while the response of forest vegetation was more complex. Boreal forests patterns indicate significant greening in May and June, with gains offset by substantive browning in July and August.

These results illustrate a need for an expanded observational network, additional analysis of existing data sets, including tree rings, and improvements in process models of ecosystem responses to climate change.

According to Scott Goetz, a senior scientist at t
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Contact: Elizabeth Braun
ebraun@whrc.org
508-540-9900
Woods Hole Research Center
17-May-2006


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