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Ambio. 2011 Sep;40(6):705-16.

Multi-decadal changes in tundra environments and ecosystems: synthesis of the International Polar Year-Back to the Future project (IPY-BTF).

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  • 1Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm.


Understanding the responses of tundra systems to global change has global implications. Most tundra regions lack sustained environmental monitoring and one of the only ways to document multi-decadal change is to resample historic research sites. The International Polar Year (IPY) provided a unique opportunity for such research through the Back to the Future (BTF) project (IPY project #512). This article synthesizes the results from 13 papers within this Ambio Special Issue. Abiotic changes include glacial recession in the Altai Mountains, Russia; increased snow depth and hardness, permafrost warming, and increased growing season length in sub-arctic Sweden; drying of ponds in Greenland; increased nutrient availability in Alaskan tundra ponds, and warming at most locations studied. Biotic changes ranged from relatively minor plant community change at two sites in Greenland to moderate change in the Yukon, and to dramatic increases in shrub and tree density on Herschel Island, and in subarctic Sweden. The population of geese tripled at one site in northeast Greenland where biomass in non-grazed plots doubled. A model parameterized using results from a BTF study forecasts substantial declines in all snowbeds and increases in shrub tundra on Niwot Ridge, Colorado over the next century. In general, results support and provide improved capacities for validating experimental manipulation, remote sensing, and modeling studies.

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